Democrats scramble to squeeze priorities into budget bill
The collapse of plans to include climate and tax legislation in a bill Democrats can pass this summer through the Senate with 51 votes has set off a scramble among Democrats to squeeze other priorities into the package.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) says she wants money for more COVID-19 vaccines and therapies, which would cost at least $10 billion.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is pushing for money to fund international COVID-19 vaccination efforts, which is projected to cost another $5 billion.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants to expand the prescription drug reform language to cover more medications.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is still agitating for more money for affordable housing, something that is becoming a more urgent because of rising mortgage and rent costs.
And Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a close Biden ally, is still pushing for tens of billions of dollars to fund long-term health care for the elderly and disabled.
The competing priorities will come crashing into each other over the next two weeks as Democrats make a final push to pass a budget reconciliation package before the August recess.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is intent on passing it early next month to help stave off raising health care premiums, which is projected to start happening in mid-August.
In reviving negotiations earlier this summer, Democrats had hoped the reconciliation package would include climate and tax provisions and were negotiating the components with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). But Manchin earlier this month scuttled those hopes and said he’d “unequivocally” support only a narrow package.
Schumer and Manchin have agreed to move a slimmed-down package that includes prescription drug reform and a two-year extension of Affordable Care Act premium subsidies.
That package would raise a net total of between $240 billion and $260 billion in revenue.
The influx in new revenue has Democratic senators lining up to get their top priorities funded.
Murray said she would “love to see” COVID-19 aid in the package.
“We need to deal with COVID,” she said. “We’re going to have a surge again and we’re not ready.”
“We know the new variants are coming, we know that we’re not prepared. We know that we don’t have the vaccines, the tests and everything else we need. We have to put the funding in,” she added.
Murray is eager to get the funding in the reconciliation bill because Republicans say there’s little chance of passing another COVID-19 package under regular order, even though Schumer and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) negotiated a $10 billion compromise measure in March.
The political dynamics have since changed, said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership team.
“I don’t think so,” he said when asked about the prospect of getting 60 votes for any new coronavirus relief bill.
Manchin has said he wants roughly half of the money raised from the reconciliation package to go toward deficit reduction but that was a demand he made while he and Schumer were still negotiating tax increases to pay for climate-related provisions.
He declined to say Thursday whether he could support more money for COVID-19 vaccines, therapies and testing in the reconciliation package, telling The Hill: “No comment.”
Sanders is making a push to expand the prescription drug reform package to give Medicare more negotiating authority to lower the costs of a broader range of drugs.
The pending compromise legislation would allow Medicare to initially negotiate lower prices for 10 drugs and later expand its authority to 20 drugs. It would also eventually cap out-of-pocket costs for consumers at $2,000.
“The American people are extremely upset we pay by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, in some cases 10 times more. I think they want to see a bold initiative and we’ll see what we can do to make that happen,” he said.
Brown said he hasn’t given up on getting more money for affordable housing, which was supposed to be a major component of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda until Manchin steadily whittled it down to just prescription drug reform and a short-term extension of Affordable Care Act subsidies.
“We did a hearing on housing [Thursday.] I don’t know what the chances are but I’m always agitating for it,” he said.
Rising mortgage rates have made it increasingly difficult for middle- and working-class Americans to buy homes and rental costs have steadily risen along with interest rates.
Brown pointed out at the Banking Committee hearing that recent cost increases have priced an estimated 4 million families out of homeownership and that median rents topped $2,000 in May.
“We have underinvested in our housing and communities for decades. Now we’re seeing the consequences,” he said.
Manchin, however, has been cool toward spending tens of billions of dollars on affordable housing, at least so far.
Casey, who represents a Senate battleground state that could determine whether Democrats keep the Senate majority, said he still wants to include money for long-term home health care.
Casey last year argued that Congress would need to spend a minimum of $250 billion to help people trapped at home because of age, illness or infirmity, but now he’s scraping to get whatever he can.
“There are several things I want, especially home- and community-based services. There are some possibilities, some options there we could have that wouldn’t be the $150 billion we had 50 votes for in December but a version of that,” he said.
“I talked to Sen. Schumer, Sen. Manchin about that,” he added.
Casey said the prescription drug reform would raise around $300 billion, which could help fund his goals.
“Put me down as hoping there’s an opening,” he said. “We’ll keep working to see and it’s going to be that first week of August when we’re dealing with this.”
Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think thank, said he and his allies are still holding out hope that something, anything can be done to address climate change.
“I know there are conversations happening but I don’t know if there’s any movement,” he said.
“For us, our priority, if there’s going to be any extra spending is climate, climate, climate,” he added. “If that’s not going to be included, there are plenty of other pieces. I know there’s housing, I know there’s COVID. There could be other things.”