Democrats face daunting hurdles despite promising start

Democrats face daunting hurdles despite promising start
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President BidenJoe BidenRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Iowa governor suggests immigrants partially to blame for rising COVID-19 cases Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on MORE and Democratic leaders face daunting hurdles as they fight to preserve a fragile bipartisan coalition crucial to the success of Biden’s legacy-defining economic agenda.

Party leaders are treading a minefield as they seek to adopt both a massive infrastructure bill with Republican support, and a second, even larger Democratic package expanding social benefits and environmental programs demanded by liberals — all without spooking moderate Democrats leery of deficit spending.

Losing any one of those groups would likely sink the entire project.

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This week, they passed the first test by adhering to a simple rule: alienate no one. 

The $3.5 trillion budget outline unveiled by Senate Democrats on Tuesday is winning praise from progressives, despite their initial demands for a much larger figure. Centrist Republicans are still determined to move a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal, despite reservations about its ties to the separate social spending bill. And moderate Democrats remain open to supporting both, despite apprehensions about the mammoth costs. 

To be sure, there’s still a long way to go to get the proposals to Biden’s desk, with plenty of obstacles standing in the way — any one of which could tank the whole agenda. Those perils were highlighted Thursday, when Senate and White House negotiators scrambled back to the table after Republicans balked at a provision of the infrastructure bill designed to raise roughly $100 billion by empowering the IRS to go after tax cheats. 

Still, the simple fact that all the major players remain engaged — and none of them were scared off by the $3.5 trillion proposal — represents an auspicious, if early, signal that Democrats have a solid shot of enacting Biden's top domestic priority over the next several months — a massive expansion of government programs that has drawn comparisons to former President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

“This is a good start ... and it's excellent momentum,” said Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalHouse Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Schumer feels pressure from all sides on spending strategy Liberal House Democrats urge Schumer to stick to infrastructure ultimatum MORE (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Moderate Democrats haggling over the infrastructure portion of the two-pronged agenda are sounding similarly optimistic. Although they’re demanding that the cost of Biden’s plans be paid for with changes elsewhere in the budget — an ultimatum complicated by the Republicans’ revolt over the IRS provision — they’re still expressing confidence that those offsets can be worked out with Republicans and the White House. 

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“We’ve just gotta find the pay-fors. That’s it,” Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterNative Americans are targets of voter suppression too The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal MORE (D-Mont.) told reporters Thursday in the Capitol. 

“We’re gonna keep moving forward — try to keep moving forward,” echoed Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOn The Money: Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds | Trump tells Republicans to walk away | GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Jan. 6 probe, infrastructure to dominate week MORE (Va.), another moderate Democrat. “I’m gonna stay confident.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have remained engaged in the infrastructure talks, despite grumbling over the Democrats’ plan to link the new public works spending to the bigger social benefits package, which GOP lawmakers unanimously oppose. The top Republican negotiator on infrastructure, Ohio Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanBiden, Sinema meet as infrastructure talks hit rough patch Feehery: It's time for Senate Republicans to play hardball on infrastructure The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today MORE, predicted lawmakers would get to the finish line, even as he dismissed pressure by Senate Democratic leaders to speed things along. 

“We're gonna get it done,” Portman said. “I don’t know if we’ll make anybody's arbitrary timeline. That's not the point. The point is to get it right. We're moving as fast as we possibly can.”

The willingness of all sides to remain at the table reflects the enormous stakes of the current debate. Infrastructure is among those rare issues that’s enormously popular across ideological lines, largely because it would benefit every district in the country. Yet a major overhaul of the nation’s aging public works systems has eluded leaders in both parties for decades. The current agreement marks their best chance in years to get it done, and negotiators in both parties appear well aware of the unusual opportunity.  

For Democrats, the personnel are helping to sell the policy. 

Although liberals had pressed for a much higher budget figure — the Progressive Caucus, for instance, wanted between $6 trillion and $10 trillion in new spending over the next decade — they're accepting the $3.5 trillion deal as a “down payment” on programs they want to expand further down the line. And they’ve been given cover by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWomen's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan MORE (I-Vt.), the liberal icon and Budget Committee chairman who was central to negotiations over the $3.5 trillion bill. 

The legislation, Sanders said this week, “will go further to improve the lives of working people than any legislation since the 1930s.”

If the top-line spending number isn’t quite as high as liberals had hoped, it also covers a lot of ground, expanding Medicare, worker benefits, public housing subsidies, the rights of undocumented immigrants and efforts to curb climate change. 

“Every one of the five priorities that we identified almost 2 1/2 months ago are in this framework,” Jayapal said. 

Progressives like Jayapal are pushing to have the House go first on the budget blueprint, which would empower Democrats in the lower chamber to play a greater role in shaping the $3.5 trillion package. On Thursday, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance McCarthy pulls GOP picks off House economic panel GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (D-Calif.) appeared to be open to the idea of the House making tweaks to Senate Democrats’ agreement, though she said it already includes many of the House’s top priorities.

“It isn't as green as I would like; it isn't as people-oriented as I would like,” Pelosi said during an event in Los Angeles. “What is in there is something we agree with, but it is imperative that we take the next step in reconciliation to make it all greener and more family friendly.”

Centrist House Democrats, facing tough races in the 2022 midterms, have also begun jostling to shape the budget blueprint. A group of 15 front-line Democrats, led by Rep. Susan WildSusan WildOvernight Health Care: Fauci clashes with Paul - again | New York reaches .1B settlement with opioid distributors | Delta variant accounts for 83 percent of US COVID-19 cases Abortion rights group endorsing 12 House Democrats ahead of midterms Democrats face daunting hurdles despite promising start MORE (Pa.), sent a letter to Pelosi’s leadership team urging them to include a provision in the budget package that would give Medicare broader power to negotiate prescription drug prices. 

“Empowering Medicare in this way and making these negotiated prices available to the private sector will bring down the cost of prescription drugs not just for seniors, but also for individuals and families across America," the 15 vulnerable Democrats wrote.

But for now, the momentum lies in the Senate, where Biden huddled with Democrats behind closed doors Wednesday and rallied them behind his massive spending proposals. A day later, Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck Schumer84 mayors call for immigration to be included in reconciliation Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? MORE (D-N.Y.) signaled that Democrats’ “two-track process” will charge forward in the coming days. 

The bipartisan infrastructure package will head to the Senate floor next week, with the first test vote set for Wednesday. And Schumer has set that same day as the deadline for all 50 Senate Democrats to sign off on the party’s budget blueprint.

“The time has come to make progress,” said Schumer, irking some Republicans who complained they still have not seen legislative text of the infrastructure plan, nor the official cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.

The developments came in the same week Democrats fanned out across the country — from D.C. to Los Angeles — to hold events and tout the expansion of the child tax credit, a central feature of Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan, which was enacted in March. Monthly tax credit payments began hitting the bank accounts of 35 million American families Thursday.

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“We’ll cut child poverty in half,” Pelosi said in L.A., standing alongside three Southern California Democrats, Reps. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassScott: 'There is hope' for police reform bill Biden: Republicans who say Democrats want to defund the police are lying Omar leads lawmakers in calling for US envoy to combat Islamophobia MORE, Judy ChuJudy May ChuOmar reflects on personal experiences with hate in making case for new envoy Omar leads lawmakers in calling for US envoy to combat Islamophobia OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats lay out vision for Civilian Climate Corps | Manchin to back controversial public lands nominee | White House details environmental justice plan MORE and Jimmy GomezJimmy GomezDemocrats face daunting hurdles despite promising start Black Eyed Peas' Taboo to appear in tribal 'pandemic town hall' Cutting critical family support won't solve the labor crisis MORE

Democrats are pushing to extend the family tax credits through their reconciliation package, though progressive Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause | IMF estimates 6 percent global growth this year Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause and wipe out K per borrower Senate confirms Biden's Air Force secretary MORE (D-Mass.) said she and others are still working out how long the monthly payments would be extended. The $3.5 trillion package would also include funding for universal prekindergarten; paid family and medical leave; cost-free community college; an expansion of Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing; and clean energy and climate change programs.   

“I want more money, but we know that there’s going to be enough for robust funding for child care, home health care, paid family leave and child tax credits,” Warren told reporters. “I’ll be in there fighting for all of those and for enough money to fight back on climate.”

One top moderate House Democrat, Problem Solvers co-Chair Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerLawmakers spend more on personal security in wake of insurrection Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections Democrats face daunting hurdles despite promising start MORE (N.J.), said the budget framework unveiled by senators this week will look different than the one that the House and Senate will ultimately vote on. But like the others, he’s confident the sides will be successful in the end. 

“I believe we’ll ultimately get there,” Gottheimer, who has been on the phone with the White House, party leadership and Senate negotiators, told The Hill by phone. But he quickly added: “I think it'll change. There'll be lots of twists and turns between now and the ultimate product. 

“There's so many questions that will obviously have to be addressed. I don't think people are going to just be willing to sign up for something until they get their questions answered,” he added. “I can't sign up for anything until I get to see more details and understand the package.”