Senate

Crucial talks on Biden agenda enter homestretch

Senate negotiators say that talks to craft a framework for a $2 trillion budget reconciliation package are in the homestretch and that President Biden is stepping up his effort to close the deal with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Senators say an agreement is close but a handful of issues continue to hold it up, including disagreements over expanding Medicare benefits, empowering the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices, a plan to tax billionaires and the details of a plan to tax methane emissions.

Senior White House officials met with Manchin and Sinema for two hours in the Capitol on Wednesday after Biden invited the two holdout centrists to discuss their remaining concerns.

A Democratic senator briefed on the negotiations said White House officials "are certainly increasing the intensity and pace of the talks" because the president is eager to show significant progress before departing Thursday for a trip to Europe, including a visit to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden wants to get the outlines of the bill wrapped up before he leaves town.

"We still have some time. The president would like a bill before he leaves for Europe," she said.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a key Biden ally in the Senate, said that "there still remain a few issues to be resolved."

"I remain hopeful that we can do that today or tomorrow at the latest, and I've conveyed to a number of my colleagues that it would be very helpful as the president heads to Europe for the G-20 and for COP26 for him to have the support of progress in a Congress where Democrats control both chambers on his core agenda," Coons said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday morning that "an agreement is within arm's length" and expressed hope it could be wrapped up at any moment.

Manchin was tight-lipped after emerging from a long meeting with senior White House officials, telling reporters only, "It's up to everybody being involved and seeing where everybody is."

Manchin earlier in the day raised concerns over Senate Finance Committee Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) latest proposal to raise hundreds of billions of dollars by levying a new tax on unrealized capital gains, which would likely only hit about 700 people.

"I don't like it. I don't like the connotation that we're targeting different people," Manchin told reporters Wednesday morning.

He argued that the ultra-wealthy "bring a lot of jobs, invest a lot of money and give a lot to philanthropic pursuits."

But Manchin eased off his threatened opposition after meeting with White House officials.

He praised Biden as "a good man" who is "working hard" and "trying to get us all together," and he insisted "I enjoy working with him."

Asked about the billionaire's tax, he said "everybody should pay their fair share," echoing a slogan that Wyden has been using for weeks.

And when pressed on whether he's open to the idea, Manchin said, "I'm open to basically everyone paying" and expressed puzzlement over why some observers interpreted his earlier comments to conclude he's staunchly against it.

Manchin won a victory Wednesday when supporters of a plan to establish a national program to provide 12 weeks of paid family leave acknowledged the idea will be dropped from the package, citing his firm opposition.

Not all Democrats were willing to concede the issue to Manchin, however.

"Until the bill is printed, I will continue working to include paid leave in the Build Back Better plan," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) declared in a terse statement Wednesday afternoon.

But a source close to the talks said Manchin's "firm opposition to [the] paid leave provision means it likely will not be in the final bill, despite many members lobbying him for support."

Democratic senators also acknowledged that funding to provide for long-term home health care for elderly and disabled residents will be cut dramatically. Biden initially requested $400 billion for the program and that number later got cut down to $250 billion.

But on Wednesday, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a leading proponent of long-term home health care, said the package is now expected to include substantially less than $250 billion.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) also said the total amount of money that will be provided for affordable housing will also shrink.

Negotiators had floated as much as $200 billion for housing earlier in the talks, but Brown on Wednesday said, "I think it's probably less."

Democrats are also narrowing their differences over a proposal to expand Medicare benefits and lower prescription drug prices, two proposals that are expected to be included in the final package.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said the proposal to expand Medicare to cover dental care is still on the table, despite concerns that it would add to the package's overall cost and opposition from dental care providers who are leery about accepting Medicare payments.

Cardin said there's talk about setting up a Medicare voucher program to subsidize the cost of dental care but cautioned "the problem with a voucher ... is that it doesn't help the people who need the most help."

"There's a cap," he explained. "So if you need major dental work it will only cover part of it."

Manchin earlier in the week bashed the idea of expanding Medicare, warning that a recent report by its board of trustees warns that the broader program faces insolvency in 2026.

Democrats say they are also getting closer to a deal with Sinema on empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.

Two senators involved in the talks said the proposal will cover a limited number of drugs and focus on medications whose costs are "out of whack with the marketplace."

The senators said there will be an exemption to protect start-up drug companies and innovative drugs from being subjected to government-negotiated price controls.

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