Democratic leaders amp up pressure on holdouts of Biden agenda

House Democratic leaders are escalating the pressure on lawmakers still withholding their support for President Biden’s economic agenda, racing against the clock to pass a massive social benefits bill Thursday night. 

A handful of House moderates are still balking at some of the policy provisions contained in the massive $1.75 trillion package of safety net benefits and climate programs that Biden has sought to pass for months. The concerns surround issues as diverse as immigration, emissions and tax cuts for high-income regions around the country.

There was also an eleventh-hour snag on an effort to reduce prescription drug prices — a topic the negotiators had thought was resolved. That problem related to the term of exclusivity — the window over which branded drugs are shielded from generic alternatives. The Build Back Better package put the window at seven years, which drew howls from some moderates, who thought they’d reached an agreement on nine years.

“We’re working on just clarifying, make sure we’re reflecting the deal that was made,” Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) said as he left a meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Pelosi and other party leaders are fighting to win over those reluctant lawmakers. Pelosi sent a letter to Democrats Thursday afternoon touting a new report from the Joint Committee on Taxation, which suggested the new social benefits spending would be fully offset — an effort to win over those moderates vowing to oppose the package without an official cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Shortly afterwards, amid a series of House votes initially slated to consider five bills, party leaders added six additional votes to the tally — including bills to rename local district post office facilities — suggesting they wanted more time to twist arms on the chamber floor.

“I think that’s why they’re putting some more votes on the floor, to try to convince some people to [support Biden’s agenda],” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). “We thought we were done, but there’s more votes.”

Cuellar, a Blue Dog Democrat, is among the lawmakers with lingering concerns about provisions in the package. For Cuellar, the issue pertains to methane emissions — an issue with relevance in his south Texas district — which he wants to be handled through regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency, not with laws passed by Congress.

“We think that the EPA rules can take care of the issues with climate,” Cuellar said. “I want to move the ball forward, but I still have concerns about the energy part.” 

That’s not all.    

Other moderates are still withholding their support to fight for broader immigration benefits. Still others are holding out for the CBO score. And there remains some disagreement over a cap for the federal tax deduction on state and local taxes, known as SALT, which has hit high-tax states disproportionately. 

“Different people have different issues,” Cuellar said. 

Add to that list another factor: distrust. 

“That had told us that they were not going to move this until they had 50 votes [in] the Senate, and they also told us that we were going to vote on the BIF on Sept. 27. And here we are,” Cuellar said. “So the two things they told us are not being kept. 

“So there is certainly a lack of trust among some of the moderates.”

Still, party leaders are racing ahead with their plan to stage a vote on the social benefits package Thursday night.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged that “there are a number of issues that are still being worked.” But he said it’s a small number relative to the size of the bill, and “we are ready to move as soon as those can be resolved.” 

“We’d like to vote tonight,” he said.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the Rules Committee, said the panel has not yet scheduled a markup, while leaders seek to iron out the remaining wrinkles. But he said there’s still “a possibility” it will happen Thursday.

“We’ll obviously have to reconvene,” he said. “I don’t know when.” 

Cuellar, however, said it would be “difficult” to win over all the holdouts in time to stage a vote Thursday night. He declined to specify how many moderates remain in that category, but said it’s enough to prevent even the rule on the bill from passing if it’s brought to the floor without resolving those outstanding issues.

“How do we get their attention?” he said. “By voting no on the rule.”

Updated at 5:18 p.m.

Tags Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Richard Neal Scott Peters Steny Hoyer

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