Democrats set to blow through key date for moving Biden’s agenda
Democrats are set to blow through the soft Memorial Day deadline for reaching a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on a slimmed-down budget reconciliation bill to raise taxes, fight climate change and lower the cost of prescription drugs.
Senate Democratic sources say there’s no chance of getting a deal this week but they argue that doesn’t necessarily mean the negotiations over a long-awaited budget reconciliation package are doomed.
Some optimistic Democratic aides note that neither Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) nor Manchin has identified the Memorial Day recess as a drop-dead deadline.
Instead, Democrats are once again pushing back the target date for getting a deal with Manchin. They now point to the start of the August recess as the new deadline, arguing that gives them most of August to draft legislation and the month of September to pass it on the floor.
Such a timetable seems difficult, to say the least.
Passing major legislation in September of an election year is extremely difficult, and high inflation has been the main reason for Manchin’s opposition to the package. The nation’s concerns about inflation have only grown in recent weeks.
Pushing the deadline back, however, shows that some Democrats are refusing to publicly throw in the towel on the package. There are a few reasons for this, including the fact that the rules for preventing the GOP from filibustering the package expire at the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.
“We hear it’s really a Schumer conversation and there’s progress but until we actually see there’s been an agreement and an initial on the agreement and we’re going to put it on the floor, I’m going to be skeptical,” said a Democratic senator, characterizing conversations with fellow Senate Democrats on the state on the negotiations.
The lawmaker said Schumer has taken the lead in the talks because senior White House officials damaged their relationships with Manchin when negotiations broke down in December. Manchin was furious that the White House leaked that he opposed a one-year extension of the expanded child tax credit, a popular provision among many Democratic lawmakers who wanted it to be in the package.
“The administration is not getting it done. Their relationships are too damaged. Only through Schumer is it going to get done but it’s not like it’s easy. I give it a 50-50 possibility of a modest bill getting done,” said the Democratic senator.
Manchin was in Davos, Switzerland, on Monday for the World Economic Forum. Speaking at a panel session with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Manchin predicted that Congress would be able to pass meaningful legislation by the midterms.
“There’s a responsibility and opportunity we can do something,” he said.
Manchin told reporters last week that all 50 Senate Democrats should be able to agree on a reconciliation package that lowers the price of prescription drugs. He has previously said the package should include proposals to reduce the deficit and fight climate change.
Rank-and-file Democratic senators say they’ve been kept largely in the dark about Schumer’s negotiations with Manchin.
“You’re not going to hear anything, I don’t think, out of anyone but Schumer and Manchin, just the two of them,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “I’ve been involved in previous discussions but at this point we’ve really delegated everything to Sen. Schumer in his conversation with Sen. Manchin.”
Cardin said Schumer told colleagues that if there is to be a deal with Manchin, “it needs to be done soon.”
“We thought this work period,” Cardin said, referring to the five-week stretch that ends this Thursday or Friday.
Some Democrats still think Memorial Day is a key date and holding out hope for an agreement, at least in principle, by the end of this week.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who presided over a pro-forma session of the Senate on Monday, said she shared Sen Tim Kaine’s (D-Va.) view that it was important to get a handshake deal by Memorial Day.
“That’s the ideal and that’s what we would like,” she said. “That’s what we would want to have.”
Asked about the chances of passing any kind of reconciliation package, Duckworth said “I think 50-50 right now,” predicting that constituents are going to ramp up pressure on senators to get something done.
“As folks go home and see where the lay of the land is, hopefully that’s going to light a fire under them,” she said.
A group of 26 vulnerable House Democrats led by Rep. Lauren Underwood (Ill.) warned Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a letter Monday that if Congress doesn’t pass a new round of health insurance subsidies though the budget reconciliation package, constituents will see their premiums go up right before the midterm election.
“We cannot afford to backslide on this progress. Our constituents cannot afford to go back to paying upward of 20 percent — or more — of their household income on health care premiums,” the group warned.
Schumer has kept the number of negotiators small and the talks quiet, a pivot from the fall when Democrats set high expectation for passing Build Back Better by Christmas.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain conceded in January that too much of last year’s negotiations with Manchin played out in public view.
“One lesson we learned in the first year is, I think, the less we talk about our negotiations with specific senators and congressmen, the better we are, so I’m going to say our talks with Sen. Manchin will proceed directly and privately,” Klain told the Wall Street Journal in an interview.
A Democratic strategist who has closely followed the talks predicted there’s no chance of a deal by the weekend.
The strategist said there’s “zero” chance of getting a deal with Manchin the next few weeks but predicted something could get done by the August recess.
The source also said that rumors about a falling out between Manchin and senior White House adviser Steve Ricchetti during last year’s negotiations are overblown.
“Manchin and Steve Ricchetti are fine but I do think there will be fewer people in the room,” the source said.
The sentiment that no deal will emerge in the next few weeks was echoed Monday by Senate Democratic aides.
“It all suggests it’s going nowhere fast,” said one Democratic aide.
Some Democrats, however, think the lack of details from the talks between Schumer and Manchin are a reason to be hopeful. These optimists point out that when two opposing sides in a policy negotiation stay quiet, it’s often a sign they’re resolving disagreements.
“I think it’s a good sign that there’s obviously some talks and it’s very quiet. I think public negotiations have been very damaging to this process. If something’s going to get done, Schumer, Manchin and Biden are going to figure it out. And I wouldn’t even put a timeline on it,” said Jim Kessler, a former Schumer aide who now serves as executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
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