Biden sets off high-stakes scramble over spending framework
Democrats are scrambling to fill in the details of their social and climate spending plan after President Biden’s proposal for a scaled-back bill lit a fire under lawmakers who want to see their personal priorities included.
The White House had hoped to unify the party by unveiling a new framework for the $1.75 trillion bill, bridging divisions between progressives and moderates and unlocking the stalled-out bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate months ago.
Instead, Biden set off a high-stakes lobbying effort to try to make changes to the eventual bill, with Democratic leadership urging members to move quickly if they want something added or removed.
“The text is there for you to review, for you to complain about, for you to add to, for you to subtract from, whatever it is. And we’ll see what consensus emerges from that,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters.
Pelosi added in a letter to her caucus that “your feedback is welcome and necessary, soon” to help get a bill ready for the House floor.
Though Biden and White House officials spoke to congressional Democrats several times about the framework, lawmakers quickly signaled that they did not view the outline revealed Thursday as final and are actively seeking to make changes.
“What I would say is you have the outline of a very significant piece of legislation. I want us to make it better,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “I will make that effort, along with others.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore) added that he was still in active discussions with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), two key moderate votes.
“Folks, this isn’t done until the Senate acts,” Wyden said.
When Democrats can come to an agreement on what will be in the spending bill impacts the timing of the House vote on the infrastructure bill. Progressives are pushing for an understanding, potentially including bill text, with Senate moderates, who they worry could otherwise overhaul the White House’s package.
Manchin and Sinema both sounded positive about the negotiations, but neither has publicly said they support the framework. And they are both at the center of intense lobbying efforts from their colleagues, who want them to back adding additional priorities.
Sinema and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) met this week amid the distrust between House liberals and Senate moderates. And Sinema was spotted chatting with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has been deeply involved in drug pricing negotiations.
Several Senate Democrats were seen trying to work Manchin during the Senate’s final vote series after the framework was released, including Wyden, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (Del.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (Ill.), and Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.).
Wyden, who has broad oversight into how the bill will be paid for, noted that he was still discussing tax fairness with Manchin. Democratic lawmakers are also trying to get big progressive priorities, many of which were dropped, back into the bill.
“There are still some kinks to work out between the framework and the bill language, and so I think the committees who have jurisdiction over the main pieces are going to be working on that,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Democrats in both chambers are engaged in a flurry of negotiations to try to get the ability for Medicare to negotiate drug pricing into the spending bill. The House version of the legislation included a broad plan, but it faced pushback from moderates. Even a narrower proposal from Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), has run into roadblocks.
“There are active talks. … There are just a few members. We just need to get a few votes,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said during a press call. “We think we are making significant progress.”
Supporters of getting drug pricing into the spending bill have powerful allies in their corner. Sanders has pointed to the plan as a must-have, and Pelosi is working to try to get it into the framework and eventual bill.
The potential deal would allow Medicare to negotiate prices only for older drugs that are no longer on their period of “exclusivity,” when they are protected from competition. Welch added that Democrats were no longer considering placing an up to 95 percent excise tax on companies that did not negotiate a price with Medicare as an enforcement mechanism, though a senior Democratic aide pushed back, saying it’s still being considered.
Sanders also indicated that he was going to try to get a Medicare expansion to cover vision and dental back into the bill. The framework expanded Medicare to cover hearing.
Democrats had been discussing using either a voucher or a debit card to cover dental, with the idea that it would be used as a transition to a long-term program. There was a debate among Democrats about whether to greenlight the long-term program as part of the spending bill, but the expansion was dropped from the framework altogether.
“While I’m glad to see that hearing aids were part of the expansion of Medicare, vision and dental are not, and that concerns me,” Sanders said.
Progressives have also launched a furious effort to get paid leave into the bill as they face entrenched opposition from Manchin. Democrats had hoped to get 12 weeks of paid leave into the spending legislation before scaling it down to four and then dropping it from the framework altogether.
But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is still trying to work Manchin, who has raised concerns about costs and questioned if the policy should be done under the arcane budget process known as reconciliation that Democrats are using to bypass a GOP filibuster for the spending bill.
Gillibrand was overheard trying to lobby Manchin on the floor after paid leave was left out of the framework and said that she gave him more information about how other countries cover the costs of paid leave.
“Until the deal is actually signed and we actually vote on it, people are continuing conversations. … I’m gonna keep working on paid leave regardless of where we are in the framework and regardless of where the framework ends up,” she said.
Beyond negotiations among Democrats, they also need to get their immigration plan cleared by the Senate parliamentarian. Because Democrats are using reconciliation, any proposal has to be approved by the Senate referee.
The framework included $100 billion to reduce immigration backlogs, expand legal representation, and improve the asylum and border processing system.
And revised bill text from the House effectively had placeholder language as Democrats try to figure out what policies can pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian, who has twice rejected efforts by Democrats to use the spending bill to grant legal permanent residents status to millions of immigrants.
Democrats are pitching the parliamentarian on a third option to provide work authorization and protection from deportation to some undocumented immigrants.
“We are gathering the information for the budget impact with the Congressional Budget Office. And that is like the first thing that needs to be presented to the parliamentarian, and we’re gonna discuss possibilities that might follow from that,” Durbin said.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) added that including immigration reform was an “essential element” of any spending deal.
“We can’t build back better when we have millions of people undocumented,” Menendez said. “So I look forward to continuing to find a way forward to be part of the package.”
Peter Sullivan contributed.