Democrats search for sweet spot below $3.5 trillion price tag

Democrats are trying to find their new sweet spot on a sweeping spending package that’s at the heart of President Biden’s agenda. 

With the reality setting in that the long-touted figure of $3.5 trillion is not going to be the top line — a blow to progressives who already viewed it as a compromise — Democratic leadership and the White House are now actively trying to figure out what their competing factions can live with. 

Clinching a price tag that could win 50 votes in the Senate and nearly every House Democrat would be a significant step forward for Biden and congressional Democrats amid a rocky period marked by high-profile infighting. 

“We’re reaching a point where we need to bring this to closure. I think that’s obvious,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. 

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), referring to the “dynamics of the Senate,” added that the “hope is that we’ll receive a number from them sooner rather than later so we can figure out how to execute on the many priorities that are in the Build Back Better Act.”

Democratic leadership is trying to reach an understanding on a price tag for the bill by Thursday. It’s a herculean effort, but if there’s a breakthrough Democratic leaders may be able to mollify progressives and persuade them not to torpedo a bipartisan infrastructure bill that is scheduled to be on the House floor on Thursday. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed that House Democrats would go forward on the larger sweeping spending bill and hinted that she wants Democrats to unite on what the top-line number of the bill will be. 

“In the next day or so we hope to come to a place where we can all move forward on that,” Pelosi told reporters. 

Though Pelosi has decoupled the larger spending bill — that Democrats are trying to pass under reconciliation, which allows them to bypass GOP votes — from the floor schedule for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Democrats and the White House still view this week as crucial for showing progress on the sweeping spending bill.

Biden met with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who have both warned that they would not support a $3.5 trillion price tag, at the White House on Tuesday.

“The president felt it was constructive, felt they moved the ball forward, felt there’s an agreement that we’re at a pivotal moment. It’s important to continue to finalize the path forward to get the job done for the American people,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said about the Biden-Sinema meeting.

Democrats are hoping that Biden can figure out what size of a bill the two moderates could vote for. Biden urged moderates during a meeting last week to come up with a number that they would support, and Psaki signaled on Tuesday that Biden is open to a smaller measure.

“I think there’s a real effort to come up with a top-in effort. … We’re trying to come with a top-line number,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters. 

Asked about the top line, Durbin added: “We’re hoping the president can work a miracle.” 

But Manchin and Sinema, while talking with the White House and committee chairmen, have been tight-lipped publicly about what size of a bill they could support.

Manchin has cast doubt on the chances that Democrats are able to work out a “framework” for the reconciliation legislation, including agreeing to a price tag, this week. He said after he met with Biden on Tuesday that the talks were ongoing but said he didn’t offer commitments on the price tag or other key points. 

“No, no. We didn’t. They were really good, honest, straightforward negotiations,” Manchin told reporters after the meeting. 

Pressed if he had made any commitments to the president, Manchin added: “No, no, there was no commitments made at all. No commitments … and talking about the needs of our country.” 

The public positioning has frustrated progressives, who have struggled to figure out what exactly Manchin and Sinema could support and worried that they are dragging out the spending bill. Though Democrats still have to finalize the bill, it’s expected to carry big party priorities including expanding health care access, new child care and education benefits, and combating climate change. 

“We’re waiting for a lot of more specifics from them as to what parts of the Build Back Better they can support, and then we can talk about how much money we can put into those programs,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). 

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), asked about Manchin and Sinema, added: “I would actually like them to make their demand clear, so that we can engage with that.” 

“It is saddening to see them use Republican talking points. We obviously didn’t envision having Republicans as part of our party,” she added. 

Progressives are barreling toward a choice on whether to oppose a bipartisan infrastructure bill if it comes up for a vote on Thursday without some sort of reassurance on the size and details of the reconciliation measure.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) didn’t rule out that a deal could come together this week, noting that “pigs fly here on Capitol Hill.” But she indicated that progressives are interested in more than just the price tag. 

“It can’t move forward without them without them participating in the full negotiation with, with, you know, the entire thing. It’s not just the top line number, the whole thing needs to be finished,” Jayapal said about Manchin and Sinema. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged House progressives to vote against the Senate infrastructure bill, which he voted for, if it comes up before the reconciliation bill. He also doubled down on his demand that the bill be $3.5 trillion, which progressives view as a compromise because they initially wanted a $6 trillion bill. 

“No infrastructure bill should pass without a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. That is the agreement that was made & that is the agreement that must be kept,” Sanders tweeted. 

However, other progressives are acknowledging that the top-line number will slip. 

“I would rather us not be obsessed with a top line, but if that’s the way that Sen. Sinema and Sen. Manchin think about it, I don’t know that we can avoid that. I would rather us come to a conclusion about four or five things that are going to change people’s lives,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). 

Progressives are also being careful not to embrace a specific lower number for the size of the bill and say the focus should instead be on making sure key priorities make it into the legislation. 

Asked about a lower top-line figure and its impact, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned: “Are you asking me to negotiate against myself?” 

Tags Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Dick Durbin Elizabeth Warren Hakeem Jeffries Ilhan Omar Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Mazie Hirono Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal

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