Democrats race to finalize $1.75 trillion spending bill and hold House vote by next week
WASHINGTON — With a once-elusive legislative victory now squarely in their sights, congressional Democrats on Friday continued the arduous task to write a $1.75 trillion bill to overhaul the nation’s health care, education, climate, immigration and tax laws, hoping to hold votes on President Joe Biden’s broader economic agenda as soon as next week.
Spanning nearly 1,700 pages — and with still more to add and revise — the legislative wrangling on Capitol Hill marked a new stage in the debate a day after Biden offered the broad outlines of a compromise to satisfy warring liberals and moderates in his own party.
In a positive sign for the president, lawmakers from both Democratic factions largely have praised the plan, which would expand Medicare, invest anew to combat global warming, offer universal prekindergarten, and impose new taxes on the ultrawealthy. Biden has heralded the investments as transformational even though they are in many cases smaller than Democrats initially envisioned.
By late Friday, lawmakers had not issued any policy ultimatums, offering an encouraging sign about the road ahead. But the flurry of activity also masked some of the still-simmering policy divisions — and the lingering feelings of distrust — that continue to plague the party’s narrow yet powerful congressional majority.
Behind the scenes, Democrats have mounted a series of late-stage efforts to restore items that they had cut to satisfy two centrist holdouts, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who for months sought to slim down their fellow lawmakers’ spending ambitions. Some Democrats have angled to restore a measure to lower drug prices for seniors on Medicare, for example, a longtime priority that a number of moderates have blocked.
Democrats still hope they can resolve these and other battles in a matter of days, opening the door for them to hold a vote in the House on the $1.75 trillion package as well as second, separate measure to improve the country’s roads, bridges, pipes ports and Internet connections. The infrastructure plan has been stalled for two months as a result of the party’s internal battles over Biden’s broader economic agenda.
But the potential for further delays — on top of another failed attempt to hold a vote on the infrastructure measure a day earlier — only further served to ratchet up tensions between Democrats’ liberal and moderate wings. As the House prepared to adjourn, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., the leader of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, even went as far as to blast their left-leaning counterparts as the “never-enough caucus.”
“It’s sort of stunning to me we’re in this place, but we need to keep moving forward, keep working on this,” she told reporters late Thursday.
The legislative legwork capped off another tumultuous week for Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress. The $1.75 trillion package he presented to his caucus marked a major milestone in a debate that has seen party lawmakers scale back their original $3.5 trillion plan. But it failed to deliver for the president the political victory he sought as he departed for a series of foreign summits into this weekend.
“It is both heartening and impressive to observe the strength of Members’ engagement in the discussion,” the speaker wrote in a late Thursday note to lawmakers.
Entering next week, Pelosi has instructed all of the House’s committees to make final adjustments and changes to part of the $1.75 trillion plan, known as the Build Back Better Act, under their jurisdiction. She told them they need to put their pens down by Sunday so that the Rules Committee can have the final text of the bill, according to two House leadership aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe their internal deliberations.
The request opens the door for the House to try again and hold a vote on both the spending package as well as the infrastructure bill next week. But the timing depends on a wide variety of factors — including perhaps a more direct statement from Sinema and Manchin, the sources said, as Democrats want to ensure they are on board with all of the party’s plans.
In the meantime, Democrats await the official budgetary estimates on the bill and the tax increases they have proposed to pay for it. To satisfy Sinema, who had opposed increases in corporate and individual tax rates, the White House ultimately put forward a blueprint that raises money through a new surtax targeting Americans who earn millions of dollars in income. It also has proposed a minimum 15 percent tax on many profitable companies, as they try to address the litany of U.S. firms that rely on creative accounting to pay the government nothing.
Potentially foreshadowing roadblocks on the horizon, an analysis from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business released this week found that Democrats’ plans may raise only $1.5 trillion over 10 years — a gap of about $500 billion from the White House’s estimates. A similar finding from the government’s own Joint Committee on Taxation could force Democrats to return to the drawing board to discuss other revenue raisers, according to aides, who point out some party lawmakers have been skittish about the perception they are adding to the deficit.
As they await the numbers, Democrats have not given up on reviving some of the spending priorities they shelved in response to concerns aired by Manchin and Sinema. That includes an imperiled effort to empower Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, an idea that has drawn intense opposition from the pharmaceutical industry while troubling moderate Democrats in the House and Senate. The White House omitted the idea from its $1.75 trillion framework, putting Democrats at risk of missing their own mark on a major campaign promise.
On a call Friday hosted by Protect Our Care, an advocacy group, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said it is “premature and wrong” to say the discussions are dead. The congressman said that House leaders are in talks with the like of Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., one of the lawmakers who opposed the party’s earlier, more ambitious drug pricing reform plans.
Behind the scenes, Democrats are still haggling privately over the many specifics, including how Medicare would be allowed to negotiate and how many drugs would fall under the program, according to two people familiar with the talks who requested anonymity to describe the fluid negotiations. But concerns persist that they might have to weaken it so dramatically to win the support of lawmakers including Peters in the House and Sinema in the Senate that it simply may not be worth doing, the sources said.
“It’s only a few members, we just need a few votes,” Welch told reporters Friday.
Other Democrats have focused their efforts on restoring a plan to provide paid family and medical leave to millions of Americans who currently lack such benefits. Party lawmakers initially hoped to provide 12 weeks of aid to workers who become sick, need to care for a loved one or are tending to the birth of a child, building off a plan Biden himself had endorsed during the 2020 presidential campaign. But the White House slashed that to four weeks during negotiations and then eliminated it entirely from its Thursday blueprint, a reflection of their broader need to reduce the size of the spending package and address policy concerns raised by Manchin.
Its exclusion infuriated some Democrats, who vowed to fight to restore it. Pelosi even said she would continue to work to secure it in the package. In a press briefing Thursday, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre only would say it remains a priority for Biden, who is “just going to continue to work on it.”
The only firm red lines that still exist among the House Democratic caucus is on immigration, where Reps. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., Lou Correa, D-Calif., and Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., have said they would vote against the Build Back Better agenda if immigration is not addressed in some form.
While $100 billion has been written into the bill to reform the registry system that would allow millions to gain a green card, the proposal has already been struck down by the Senate parliamentarian, threatening its future inclusion. Senators are hoping to present a third plan that would give a certain group of undocumented immigrants work and travel protections, but not a pathway to citizenship. The immigration provisions could bring the total price tag to $1.85 trillion.
The massive question mark surrounding immigration left Correa to depart Thursday’s caucus meeting looking dejected and angry, telling The Washington Post later that saying he was disappointed was “an understatement.”
In sorting out some of the still-smoldering policy fights, Democrats also grappled anew with their own internal divides. Pelosi’s decision to reverse course on an infrastructure vote Thursday marked another victory for progressives, who have used the bill as leverage as they seek to negotiate their other spending priorities. The bloc, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., has said it is only willing to loosen its blockade once they secure final text on the $1.75 trillion bill — allowing the House to vote on both of Biden’s plans in tandem.
Speaking to reporters, Jayapal praised the framework and said her caucus had lined up behind the plan, which reflected many of its priorities. But other liberals made clear they would not change their strategy, as they remained fearful that Manchin and Sinema might walk away from the deal.
“We are supposed to trust, trust, our trust has to be in two senators that have not, in my opinion, been good faith actors up until this point,” said Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo.
Moderates, however, were left seething about the delay — the second time that Pelosi has had to scrap plans to adopt the infrastructure bill that centrists see as critical to their communities as well as their electoral futures.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. “It wasn’t a good day.”
“People are frustrated right now ... there’s a lack of trust and you got a lot of members here that have been here four years or less and they don’t seem to understand how you get things done,” he told reporters.
Speaking directly to House Democrats, Biden a day earlier had tried to defuse the tension. In a message geared toward liberals, he said the framework, which was the result of months of protracted negotiations, had enough votes to pass the Senate. That comment came even as Manchin and Sinema, the two key moderate senators, stopped short of explicitly saying they would vote for the bill.
But Biden did not explicitly call for House Democrats to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, a move that surprised lawmakers who were eager for him to pressure their colleagues into supporting the legislation before he left for Europe and ahead of Tuesday’s gubernatorial election in Virginia.
Two House leadership sources, who later spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private nature of negotiations, acknowledged Friday that a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill could have succeeded Thursday had Biden firmly said that he wanted it held immediately. Instead, Biden’s plea was softer than expected, as he told Democrats they all “badly need a vote on both of these measures,” a third leadership source recalled.
The mounting tensions set the stage for a week-ending meeting between Jayapal and Sinema, which the sources saw as necessary to broker confidence between progressives and the Arizona Democrat, especially after a general statement she released early Friday only hardened sentiments that Sinema was not fully endorsing Biden’s framework.
Jayapal emerged saying little about the meeting itself but expressing more firmly that it is possible for the House to quickly pass both bills by next week.
“The fact that we have the text is huge, and we are in conversation with the two senators, and so I feel positive. I feel very, very positive,” she said.