Administration

Democrats brush off risks of paring down spending package

Democrats are brushing off the political risks of slashing their sweeping social spending measure, arguing voters will reward them for getting something done and not punish them because the legislation is smaller than the $3.5 trillion package that President Biden and his party had initially hoped to secure.

The package now looks like it will top out at just $2 trillion and that it won't include key components championed by progressives such as a clean electricity program and free community college.

But Democrats say that getting something passed is better than nothing - and that they would surely be punished by voters if neither the social spending and climate bill nor a separate infrastructure measure already passed by the Senate failed to reach Biden's desk.

"What will matter is that the bills are done," Matt Bennett, executive vice president for public affairs at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said on a recent call with reporters. "When they are done, they are certain to be big and robust. I mean, we're not talking about small measures here. Something in the neighborhood of $2 trillion is a lot of money, and so that will be plenty for Democrats to be able to run on."

Democratic strategists say those outside the Beltway are not paying close attention to the details of the negotiations and what's more important in the end is an actual deal that will help the American people.

"I think right now we all are justifiably in a moment where we're looking at all the individual tree trunks with a microscope, but once it's passed, everyone will be looking at the Democrats who just planted a forest that's the biggest thing done to help people since FDR and JFK," said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale.

At the same time, some Democrats are conscious of potentially winning the battle but losing the war over a package that caused a riff within their own party.

White House officials and Democrats on Capitol Hill are still steeped in negotiations around the measure in hopes of landing on a compromise that satisfies both moderates and progressives after Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) telegraphed their resistance to the original $3.5 trillion price tag and certain policies within the legislation.

The fate of the bill, which will need unanimous Democratic support in the Senate to pass without GOP votes, and the separate Senate-passed infrastructure package are still uncertain.

"There are some ramifications here that no one is talking about," said one Democratic strategist, who worries that his party isn't thinking about the big picture. "Our strategy has been off this whole time, and if we think no one is watching, we're wrong."

The strategist pointed to the closeness of the gubernatorial race in Virginia as proof that the situation in Washington is not doing the party any favors.

"We have the White House, we're in control of the House and the Senate, and we can't get shit done."

On Wednesday night, even CNN's Don Lemon went off on Biden and Democrats for not seizing the moment and letting Republicans drive the narrative of the latest debate.

"They are not selling the agenda," he said in a discussion on air with anchor Chris Cuomo. Later, speaking to Democrats directly, he added, "You are weak. You are weak."

Some of Biden's signature programs are on the chopping block. His proposal for tuition-free community college is all but guaranteed to be eliminated. Democrats are also scrambling to replace a key climate provision, the Clean Electricity Performance Program, amid opposition from Manchin. There are discussions about scaling back various programs, including limiting the child tax credit extension to one year, which prompted criticism from some liberals.

To be sure, the final package will still be expansive once it's finally worked out. It is expected to include universal prekindergarten, a family and medical leave program, an expansion of Pell Grants and multiple environmental programs. Lawmakers are also still debating the tax increases Biden has proposed to pay for the package.

White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday that Biden does not believe that the vision for his economic agenda is being watered down.

"When we reach a deal ... it will be transformational," Jean-Pierre said.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley recalled a lesson he learned while working for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) in arguing that a trimmed-down bill was better than nothing.

"One of the things he taught us is it's always better to take half a loaf and work on the rest than come away with nothing," he said.

At the same time, Manley raised other concerns with Democrats' strategy of trying to fund many programs rather than focusing on a few that they can fund robustly.

"Among the reasons that I have those concerns is in this hyper-polarized environment, I think it's tough to assume that some of these programs will be extended again in the next few years," Manley said.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) acknowledged that he is concerned about cutting the duration of some of the programs, which could empower Republicans to cut them if they reclaim power.

"They'll get the benefits immediately and it will improve people's lives. I do have a concern that, what happens if the Republicans take over one of the chambers at some point?" Khanna said. "It's not ideal, but politics is the art of compromise. It's not how I would fund things, but it's better than having nothing."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One Wednesday that Biden is focused on the final package having both "immediate" and "long-term" impacts, though she declined to address the particulars of the ongoing negotiations.

Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution, argued that it will be difficult for Republicans to roll back the programs once the public feels their benefits, comparing it to the Affordable Care Act, former President Obama's signature health care law. Geevarghese also said that the argument for building on the package presents an organizing opportunity for progressives in particular.

"This budget is really a signal that over the next two years, four years, eight years that we've got to continually mobilize and organize to expand and build on the progress that we're starting to make right now," he said.

Mike Lillis contributed.

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