Equilibrium & Sustainability

Democrats warn shrinking Biden’s spending plan could backfire

Democrats are warning that any attempts by moderates to pare down a $3.5 trillion spending package could threaten President Biden’s top legislative priority and leave the party empty-handed.

Progressive Democrats are sounding the alarm after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Ariz.) warned Wednesday that she doesn’t support a $3.5 trillion price tag for an expansive package Democrats hope to muscle through Congress that includes top party priorities like like immigration reform, combating climate change and expanding Medicare. 

Democrats hope to move the legislation on party lines in the Senate with special budgetary rules, preventing Republicans from filibustering the measure. But that effectively gives each Democratic senator, including Sinema, veto power on the bill.

Progressives are warning that a $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill backed by Sinema that is largely focused on “traditional” infrastructure like roads, bridges and broadband will not get to the White House without the larger bill.

“It is my absolute conviction that you’re not going to have a bipartisan bill unless you have a reconciliation bill of $3.5 trillion,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters.

Sanders added that he expected the spending plan would be $3.5 trillion in the Senate and “maybe even more in the House,” suggesting his counterparts across the Capitol could try to expand the eventual bill even more.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) added that any push to decrease the price tag for the spending package would make it “hard to get the votes” for it. 

“I’m not sure you get a budget reconciliation if it’s under $3.5 [trillion], because you have to get 50 votes,” he added. “Our caucus has to decide if everybody’s willing to compromise.”

Asked about going below $3.5 trillion, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) replied, “I’d rather not.”

The progressives see the entire package as key for the United States to take steps to sustain its traditional infrastructure but also to move the nation forward on longer-lasting solutions to climate change, health care and immigration that will help future generations. 

But winning a bipartisan victory is important to Sinema and other centrists, who have faced fierce criticism for not changing the Senate’s rules to be able to swiftly pass a laundry list of the party’s biggest priorities. It would also give several vulnerable Democrats up for reelection a victory to tout back home as Republicans put the larger package at the center of their attacks, tying it to rising deficits and inflation fears. 

It all leaves Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress facing a delicate balancing act. 

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said that there was “substantial” support within the conference for a bill with the $3.5 trillion price tag. Democrats are proposing paying for the bill with, among other provisions, increased taxes on some high-income earners and corporations.

“I don’t think it’s an easy answer. We have to go through this process, reach a point where we can try to find agreement on the reconciliation instructions. That I think is where the rubber meets the road,” Durbin said, asked how he balances Sinema’s position with the likely progressive pushback.

He added that he had talked to Sinema to try to understand “exactly where she is, and I certainly have a few more questions.”  

Schumer, Sanders and the Budget Committee Democrats announced earlier this month that they had agreed to a price tag of $3.5 trillion. And they’ve voiced confidence this week that they’ll have all 50 Democrats needed to pass the budget resolution as soon as next week.

But unity on the spending package itself, which likely won’t pass Congress until at least September, is less certain.

“It’s going to be a long road. All the Democrats got to hang together. That’s tough to do,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Budget Committee, said on Thursday during an interview with Fox Business.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) indicated to reporters on Thursday that he supports taking up the budget resolution, a win for Democrats, but didn’t specifically commit to backing an eventual spending package of $3.5 trillion.

“I’m looking. I’m not saying whether I can or I can’t,” he said.

And Sinema sparked immediate backlash from House progressives after she said in a statement that while she supports “beginning this process,” in an apparent reference to the budget resolution, “I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion.”

The stance earned Sinema praise from Republicans.

“I was certainly pleased. She is very courageous,”  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Fox News.

And it made House progressives apocalyptic.

“Good luck tanking your own party’s investment on childcare, climate action, and infrastructure while presuming you’ll survive a 3 vote House margin  especially after choosing to exclude members of color from negotiations and calling that a ‘bipartisan accomplishment,’” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Senate Democrats were quick to tamp down the potential for intraparty drama on their biggest priority. The Senate, they argued, is still early in the process, with much of the focus still on the bipartisan bill, and has plenty of time to determine what is in the Democratic-only bill.

“It’s a long process,” Sanders said. “There’s going to have to be a lot of work to determine what is in the actual bill.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), another member of the Budget Committee, added that “we’re going to deal with BIF,” using an acronym for the bipartisan infrastructure framework.

“Then we’re going to deal with the budget resolution,” he said, “and then we’ll go on from there.” 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders budget reconciliation Chris Murphy Climate change Dick Durbin Filibuster Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Mark Warner Mazie Hirono Mitch McConnell Ron Wyden

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