Biden Agenda Gains Senate Momentum With Major Hurdles Remaining
President Joe Biden’s agenda got a boost with Senate Democratic leaders outlining plans for more than $4 trillion in domestic programs, but enactment hinges on negotiating details on Medicare, taxes, immigration and infrastructure that have confounded Congress for a generation.
The Senate is moving forward with a two-pronged approach to enacting Biden’s agenda, a $3.5 trillion tax and social spending plan backed only by Democrats and a $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Democrats on Wednesday celebrated agreement on the broad outline of a 10-year budget proposal that bridges, at least on the surface, the gulf between a $6 trillion proposal from Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, a progressive who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, and moderates including Virginia Senator Mark Warner, who insisted on a more modest plan that wouldn’t swell the national debt.
But Biden and party leaders still will need to make trade-offs to get all 50 members of their Senate caucus on board and keep their fractious House contingent united.
“Now, we know the road ahead is going to be long and there are bumps along the way,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “This is only the first step in the long road we will have to travel and must travel.”
Sanders said his staff is now working to rally support for a budget resolution in the coming weeks that will give committees a fiscal target for various pieces of the eventual legislation. Agreeing on a House and Senate budget resolution will tee up a vote on a later bill that can pass the Senate without Republican support, but the process likely will take months
“What happens next is this is an enormously large and complicated piece of legislation and it’s going to take an enormous amount of work amongst 50 people to reach agreement,” Sanders told reporters.
Senators met with Biden at a Wednesday lunch and afterward paired their talk about party unity with promoting their own priorities. An outline of the deal mentioned wide changes to health, climate, tax, nutrition, education, child care and labor policies but was short on specifics.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate from West Virginia, told reporters he still needs information on what tax increases are being proposed to fully pay for the plan. Manchin, who hails from a coal-producing state, also said he told Schumer he has a problem with some fossil fuels provisions in the outline.
“I told him that I was concerned about some of the language I’ve seen that moves away from fossil,” Manchin said. “I said, you move our country away from fossil and there won’t be another country that will step to the plate and do the research and development that will fix the emissions that are coming from fossil now.”
But Manchin cheered progressives when he said he was “fine” with including immigration reform in the package and noted he had long supported the failed 2013 comprehensive immigration legislation.
Senator Alex Padilla of California said he wants to be sure that the deal includes as “expansive as possible” language offering legal status for undocumented immigrants — a Democratic priority that’s remained unfulfilled for decades.
Other senators pointed to the pocketbook issues that Democrats say will help middle-income Americans.
“I heard a lot of enthusiasm tempered by we have to get the details right, and people need to feel this at home in their pockets,” Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said, pointing to expanding Medicare benefits for dental, vision and hearing.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders need to determine if the rough outline of the deal is acceptable in the House, where Democrats can probably afford only three defections.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the tentative agreement “strong” and a “victory” without explicitly endorsing it. Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Representative Pramila Jayapal, who has called for a $6 trillion to $10 trillion bill, told reporters she sees it as a “down payment.”
Progressives will be pivotal in the House vote, and Jayapal said she hasn’t given up trying to add to the proposal after Sanders told reporters Wednesday morning he hopes his House allies can do better than he did advancing their agenda.
“We have talked about a once-in-a-generation investment. That would have been if we were getting to the higher number we were advocating for,” she said. “I think this will be a significant down payment on a real investment into our people — but it’s not the end. There is more work to be done.”
The bipartisan group of senators working separately on the infrastructure bill want to finish negotiations on Thursday. How to pay for the $579 billion plan is one of the final sticking points.
The White House has been deeply involved in these talks, which are led by Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Ohio Republican Rob Portman.
“I think we’re in good shape,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “There may be some slight adjustments of the pay-fors. That’ll get down to what the Congress wants to do. I’ve laid out how I think you’d pay for it. You got to remember, we have an agreement.”
Infrastructure talks were recently complicated when Pelosi said she wouldn’t allow the House to vote on it until the larger tax and spending bill is completed by the Senate. Some Republican supporters of the bipartisan plan like Susan Collins of Maine shrugged off the $3.5 trillion budget effort while others like North Carolina’s Thom Tillis said Pelosi linking the two could be a deal-breaker.
But for the moment, neither piece of legislation can move without the other because Manchin and Sinema have made having a bipartisan achievement the price of their cooperation on a possible second bill, and liberals don’t want to move on the bipartisan deal without assurances about the Democratic-only package.
“I think it’s the only way to get it done,” Biden said.