The Memo: Cuts to big bill vex Democrats

President Biden’s signature piece of domestic legislation is going to be much smaller than initially envisioned — and that’s vexing Democrats who worry that vital proposals will be whittled down or erased entirely.

The final bill is likely to come in at around half the original $3.5 trillion projected, according to multiple reports. The huge sum being cleaved off the top line means that some cherished progressive priorities are sure to fall by the wayside.

Progressives have run into the unyielding math of the Senate, where two more-conservative Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), hold enormous leverage.

Manchin’s opposition has been enough to rebuff a key measure aimed at combating climate change. The measure would have rewarded electricity plants that use clean energy and punished those that stick with fossil fuels. But Manchin, personally and politically linked to the coal industry, is adamant he won’t accept such a move.

Biden has also indicated that the idea of universal tuition-free community college will likely go. 

A host of other proposals are at risk.

Much of the tension in Democratic circles now centers on whether other proposals will still be in the bill, even if funded for a shorter time than was first projected, or stricken completely.

“A reduction in scale [for the overall bill] could reflect two radically different stories,” Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told this column.

“If key promises Democrats have made for years are funded, we can run on extending them in the midterms — and that is a giant win. If a couple of rogue Democrats force every other Democrat to break promise after promise on things like challenging [Big] Pharma or supporting child care, that would be hard to swallow.”

Furious efforts are being made by Democrats on Capitol Hill to preserve certain key priorities.

Fifteen Senate Democrats led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) sent an open letter to Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) Wednesday in which they advocated for a national paid family leave program that would be “meaningful, comprehensive and permanent.”

That effort came after Biden told progressives who met with him at the White House this week that changes to the bill would likely reduce federal family leave benefits from the 12 weeks initially proposed to four weeks.

There is also angst over the duration of an extension to a popular $300 per month child tax credit. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pushed back against suggestions that the measure might be extended for only one year.

“Nobody would be talking about extending Social Security for one year,” Wyden said, according to a CBS News reporter.

Beyond each specific measure, Democrats have two intertwined worries. 

One is substantive: Many in the party sincerely believe the nation is creaking from decades of underinvestment and that there needs to be a sweeping change. 

The other is political: Democrats know they need to do something significant enough to show voters that their party can make a difference.

“The smaller number is not good for the country, economically speaking, because of what we are failing to do,” said progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini. “But politically, you should be able to sell a massive investment in people and communities and contrast that with 100 percent opposition from the Republican Party.”

Tasini, like many Democrats, bemoans the concentration on the top-line figure rather than a focus on what could be accomplished in the legislation.

The White House and key progressives are trying to put that right.

Biden was due to speak in Scranton, Pa., on Wednesday evening to make the case for the legislation. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) were to be the headline speakers on a livestream, also scheduled for Wednesday evening, to explain “What’s in the Damn Bill.”

Some Democratic voices have been raised to bemoan missteps in getting to this point.

The Hill reported earlier on Wednesday that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) had said that Democrats had “got caught up” in the debate over the top-line number, adding, “We should have stuck with four or five basics and said these are our goals we’re going to try to reach.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) fretted that “internal debates and internal arguments” had used up time that could otherwise have been spent “actively selling this.”

Democrats of every stripe have one thing going for them: Virtually every member of the party agrees that a failure to pass any legislation would be a disaster. 

Additionally, a firm agreement on the social spending bill would unclog passage of a separate and popular $1 trillion bill dealing with traditional infrastructure.

But as the reality of the social spending bill takes shape, progressives are having to come to terms with the fact that a golden opportunity has lost some of its luster.

Earlier this year, Sanders had envisioned a piece of legislation on the transformational scale of the New Deal passed in the 1930s under President Franklin Roosevelt.

Progressives can feel the door shutting on that grand goal. It’s a bitter pill, even if they know something is better than nothing.

“The great disappointment here is the fact that Democrats had a very short window to do something historic. And while we are still accomplishing something very significant, it is going to be difficult to do much more,” said strategist Mark Longabaugh, who worked on Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“We staved off disaster. But it’s not historic.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. Alexander Bolton and Jordain Carney contributed reporting.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Build Back Better Child tax credit Chris Murphy Chuck Schumer Climate change Dick Durbin Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kirsten Gillibrand Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Ron Wyden

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