Dems brace for score on massive Biden bill

House Democrats are bracing for the last cost estimates surrounding President Biden’s sweeping social benefits and climate package — the final barrier preventing a floor vote that party leaders hope to stage before the weekend. 

Passage of the massive $1.75 trillion proposal — legislation that’s been stalled over months of divisive negotiations — would mark a significant victory for Biden and his party heading into the weeklong Thanksgiving recess. 

The president is sinking in the polls, dragged down by spiking inflation, a volatile labor market and an ongoing COVID-19 crisis that’s defied federal efforts to rein it in. Advancing the social spending package to the Senate would shift the debate away from the messy process that’s practically defined it to this point, to focus instead on the numerous benefits contained within the bill, including expansions of education programs, child care subsidies and health care benefits that are popular with voters across a spectrum of party, region and ideology. 

The final hurdle standing in their way this week is the cost analysis, being conducted by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which has been demanded by a handful of moderate holdouts. 

The CBO had already issued estimates for 10 sections of the bill as of Wednesday evening, and has said it will release the remaining reports by the end of the day on Friday. But many Democrats are predicting the score could come as soon as Wednesday night or Thursday, as the agency has been working quickly amid pressure from Democrats.

“They anticipate that we could have a CBO score [Thursday],” said Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. “They don’t anticipate any holdup.” 

The wild card remains the question of whether any of the outstanding CBO estimates will diverge wildly from the figures already put forward by the White House and Democratic committees. An unforeseen spike in cost could sink the week’s vote strategy if it were to spook even just a handful of moderates. 

For that reason, even the details of the fiscal reports matter less than the moderates’ reception to them. And many of those moderates have already signaled their support for the package this week, noting that the Senate is almost certain to alter the legislation and send it back to the House before it gets to Biden’s desk— a delay allowing CBO to perform a more in-depth cost analysis.

With that in mind, House moderates are demanding to see the remaining sectional reports, but not the conclusive comprehensive analysis, which aims to gauge how the bill’s many pieces interact with one another. 

“We’re not trying to get the interactive [report]. That would require quite some time and [we’d like to] cut the CBO a little bit of slack,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a centrist Blue Dog. “And we’re getting another bite at the apple after the Senate gets a chance to do its thing.”

Party leaders have been heartened by such remarks and remain confident that the CBO analysis will be no barrier to a House vote this week. 

“Everybody feels pretty good because of the eight committee scores. They’ve all been in line with what we estimated they would be,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. “There were no surprises.”

The CBO on Wednesday evening released reports on the bill sections from the Natural Resources and Education and Labor Committees. Still to come are estimates of the sections from the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees, which cover some of the biggest topics in the bill, including prescription drugs, taxes and climate.

“The big ones are still out there,” Yarmuth said.

The CBO estimates are being sought by a group of moderate House Democrats, who want more information about the bill’s impact on the deficit prior to a vote. Five moderates — Reps. Ed Case (Hawaii), Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), Kathleen Rice (N.Y.) and Schrader — had struck a deal with progressives earlier this month in which they agreed to vote for the social spending bill once the CBO released more “fiscal information,” but no later than this week.

Key progressives said they expect moderates to live up to the agreement.

“Kumbaya. Everyone’s good,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the plan is to start debating the bill on the floor Thursday and then proceed to the vote “depending upon when we get the figures from CBO.”

“Whenever Nancy thinks she has the votes, we’ll vote,” added Yarmuth, referring to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “I don’t think she’s planning to wait for the final CBO score Friday afternoon.”

The CBO is expected to say that one of the bill’s key revenue-raising provisions, which would increase IRS funding for enforcement, will raise significantly less than the administration estimates. Moderates, however, appear ready to accept the discrepancy, and in some cases they are defending the Treasury Department’s more generous estimates.

No Republicans are expected to vote for the legislation, and they have been hammering Democrats, particularly over an increase to the cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction that GOP lawmakers created with their 2017 tax law. The conservative organization Heritage Action announced Wednesday that it is launching a seven-figure ad campaign targeting moderate Democrats on the issue.

House Democrats’ bill would raise the cap from $10,000 to $80,000, and have the cap stay at that level through 2030. The cap would then return to $10,000 for 2031.

The SALT deduction provision is important to Democrats in certain high-tax blue states, who argue that Republicans created the cap to punish their states. But Republicans have pointed to the fact that analysts estimate the SALT deduction provision would largely benefit high-income taxpayers. 

“We hear Democrats say they’re fighting for working class families,” said Rep. Jason Smith (Mo.), senior Republican on the Budget Committee. “All you have to do is read the text of this legislation and know that this bill is all about the wealthy.”

Key Senate Democrats have also raised concerns about the House provision for this reason, and are proposing a different approach that would leave the cap at $10,000 but exempt taxpayers with incomes under a level between $400,000 and $550,000.

House Democrats are pushing back on the GOP attacks, but some lawmakers have expressed openness to the alternative proposal in the works from Senate Democrats.

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), one of a number of Democrats who have defended the SALT proposal, said on Wednesday that he thinks it’s “reasonable” for his party to consider income caps for any tax cuts.

“I don’t think there’s any of us in the Democratic caucus that wish to enrich those with great means, especially at the expense of those with more modest means,” he said.

Tags Dean Phillips Ed Case Jason Smith Joe Biden John Yarmuth Josh Gottheimer Kathleen Rice Kurt Schrader Mark Pocan Nancy Pelosi Richard Neal Steny Hoyer Stephanie Murphy
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