Democrats on cusp of sweeping deal on Biden agenda

After months of tense talks, delayed votes and internal clashes, Democratic leaders are on the cusp of solidifying a deal on President Biden’s sweeping domestic agenda, setting the stage for the House to vote on both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a larger social benefits package in the coming days.

Party leaders on Tuesday announced a hard-fought agreement on a proposal to rein in prescription drug costs — which stood among the last stubborn divisions between liberals and party moderates — and lawmakers said they were also nearing a deal on a new tax cut for those living in high-income regions of the country, which was demanded by centrists.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the final language of the social spending package could be released as early as Tuesday night — “That’s the hope,” she said — and across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the upper chamber is aiming to consider the legislation on the week of Nov. 15. 

“We’re coming to our conclusions,” Pelosi said. 

The rapid-fire developments came after weeks of gridlock, and they were quickly cheered by Democrats of all stripes, who have watched in exasperation as the negotiations dragged on for months of missed deadlines, bad press and public grousing that’s helped tug Biden’s approval numbers underwater.

“We have a bill,” one key negotiator, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) declared Tuesday. “We did not have that last week” when Biden came to Capitol Hill. “We had a wish and a prayer and a promise and a framework. … And now we’re going to have a vote on both bills.”

Republicans have lashed out throughout the process, attacking Biden’s social benefits package as a dangerous case of government overreach while characterizing the majority Democrats as ineffective legislators. Not a single GOP lawmaker in either chamber is expected to support the $1.75 trillion legislation.

Democrats dismissed those criticisms outright, saying the messy infighting is part of the routine “sausage making” that goes into crafting any major legislation. Those tensions will be long forgotten, Democrats maintain, when the president’s agenda is enacted and the numerous family benefits begin to reach workers and families across the country. 

“The day-by-day stuff — it all fades away,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.). “I’m feeling really good about it.”

Even as Democrats were celebrating, however, there were reminders that more work needs to be done to get the two bills to Biden’s desk. Sen. Joe Manchin (D) — the centrist West Virginian who’s led the effort to scale back Biden’s social safety net expansion — declared Tuesday that he hasn’t endorsed a framework Biden unveiled last week, let alone a final bill. 

“There [were] a couple of concerns that we had that we needed to work through,” Manchin said. 

Manchin has also balked at the notion of voting on an enormous federal spending package before the cost estimate has been released by the Congressional Budget Office — a sentiment echoed this week by House moderates.

Still, Biden predicted late Tuesday that Manchin will ultimately get on board. 

“He will vote for this if we have in this proposal what he has anticipated,” Biden told reporters in Scotland, where the president is participating in a global climate summit — a gathering  that’s only increased the stakes for securing the climate provisions in his social spending package.

Biden’s ability to secure Manchin’s support is crucial to the success of the both bills, not only because Democrats have only 50 senators in the upper chamber, but because House liberals have hinged their support for both the infrastructure and social spending packages on Biden’s promise that the latter can clear the Senate without any GOP votes. 

“We’re going trust the president that he’s going to deliver 51 votes. He’s confident he can deliver 51 votes. We’re going to trust him,” Jayapal said. 

Manchin is not the only outstanding wild card in the quickly evolving debate. 

As of Tuesday evening, Democrats were also scrambling to resolve a spate of outstanding issues, from immigration and Medicare expansion to climate provisions. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also threw a late wrench in the talks when he suggested he won’t support the proposed tax cut for high-income regions, since much of the change would benefit some of the wealthiest people in the country. 

“At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, the last thing we should be doing is giving more tax breaks to the very rich,” Sanders said in a statement. 

Still, Sanders said there’s plenty of room to find a compromise that “protects the middle class in high tax states.” And the deal on prescription drugs gave Democrats a surge of momentum as they headed for the finish line.    

The agreement would empower Medicare to negotiate drug prices in limited instances; prevent drug companies from raising prices faster than inflation; and cap out-of-pocket costs for seniors on Medicare at $2,000 per year.

Tuesday’s drug pricing deal was scaled back significantly from House Democrats’ original proposal in order to win support from key moderates who contended a more sweeping overhaul would have harmed innovation from drug companies to develop new treatments. A trio of moderate Democrats — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Reps. Scott Peters (Calif.) and Kurt Schrader (Ore.) — helped negotiate the compromise.

“It’s not everything we all wanted; many of us would have wanted to go much further. But it’s a big step in helping the American people deal with the price of drugs,” Schumer told reporters as he announced the deal.

At the same time, Democrats made significant progress on a key demand of moderate lawmakers from high-taxed blue states: lifting the cap on the federal deduction allowed for state and local taxes, known as SALT.

Negotiators said Tuesday they were weighing a proposal to eliminate the SALT cap for five years. The cap would then return in 2026 and run through 2031, thereby paying for the proposal. 

“Today’s news is encouraging for a SALT cap repeal to be included in the final reconciliation package,” a trio of moderate Democrats, Reps. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Mikie Sherrill (N.J.) and Thomas Suozzi (N.Y.), said in a joint statement. “We will continue to work with House and Senate leadership to ensure the cap on the SALT deduction is repealed.

“No SALT, no deal. No SALT, no dice.” 

But the progress on SALT led to grumbling from other corners of the Democratic Party. Aside from Sanders’s criticisms, Democrats from regions not impacted much by the SALT deduction argued that taxpayers from their states would effectively be subsidizing tax breaks for wealthier families in coastal states; Republicans, who capped the deductions in their 2017 Trump tax cuts law, are sure to seize on the issue. 

“It’s going to be a huge campaign issue that will hurt those of us from non-coastal states in the midterms,” said one House Democrat.

Tags Bernie Sanders Build Back Better Charles Schumer Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Josh Gottheimer Kurt Schrader Kyrsten Sinema Matt Cartwright Mikie Sherrill Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal prescription drug costs Scott Peters

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