Equilibrium & Sustainability

Spending bill faces Senate scramble

President Biden’s climate and social spending bill is facing the threat of changes in the Senate as Democrats navigate a slim majority and tricky budget rules. 

Even as House Democrats have spent days agonizing over trying to work out an agreement that could win over nearly all of their members — ultimately punting until at least mid-November as moderates push for an analysis of the bill — Senate Democrats are warning that it is likely to change once it reaches their chamber. 

The bill faces multipronged challenges in the Senate: An even narrower majority, complex rules governing what can be in the legislation and a chaotic process that lets Republicans try to peel off enough Democrats to inject changes into the legislation or sink it altogether. 

“There’s going to have to be a lot of work done,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), asked about the path on the spending bill in the Senate. 

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who was spotted this week questioning his colleagues on the Senate floor about dropping popular provisions — vowed to go down to the wire fighting for Medicare expansion and tax policies. 

“I’m going to fight to the last moment here to make sure that those elements are in the bill,” Sanders said, while acknowledging the spending negotiations were a “difficult process.” 

House and Democratic leadership have been trying to iron out the details of the bill before it passes the House, and gets sent across the Capitol, to smooth its path to Biden and assuage nervous moderates. Any changes made by the Senate will force the bill to be passed again by the House, even as Congress faces a December legislative pile up. 

But key Senate Democrats are making it clear that they aren’t married to the House proposal. 

Moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he has “concerns” about the framework. 

“I have a lot of concerns, let’s put it that way,” Manchin said during an interview with Fox News, adding that the House bill is “not going to be the bill I work off of.”

He added to reporters at the Capitol that he had “no clue” what was in the House legislation that has been the subject of days of high-profile debate as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to work out last-minute sticking points between moderates and progressives on issues like immigration and prescription drug negotiations. 

“They’re on their own,” he added when asked if the House had asked for his sign off on parts of their bill. 

Tester, asked if he wanted specific changes, acknowledged that “I don’t know what’s in the House proposal,” and said while he would “study it thoroughly” he has a “notion it’s going to change.” 

Democrats in the two chambers are taking separate tacks on revisions to the state and local tax dedication after House Democrats initially pitched a five-year suspension of the deduction cap. 

House Democrats have pitched a plan to raise the cap from $10,000 to $80,000 through 2030, and then have the cap return to $10,000 starting in 2031. 

But that’s different from a proposal from Sanders and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) who are proposing to leave the cap at $10,000 but exempt taxpayers with incomes under a level between $400,000 and $550,000.

“I think there is widespread recognition that a complete repeal is not a good idea. … Folks in the House have an idea. We’ve got an idea here, some of us are working on,” Sanders said. 

Sanders added that he thought the idea of an income restriction was “cleaner” than a change in the deduction cap but that they were looking at options. 

House Democrats’ plans on immigration and paid leave could also get shuffled in the Senate. 

After initially leaving it out of a White House framework, Pelosi added a four-week paid leave plan into the bill, saying that the decision was influenced by demands she was hearing inside the caucus. 

Paid leave polls well, making it a popular policy for Democrats, and is broadly supported within the House and Senate Democratic caucuses. But because Democrats have no room for error they need total unity in the Senate, and Manchin has made clear he opposes including it in the bill. 

Democrats are hoping that putting paid leave in the bill that gets sent to the Senate makes it politically tougher to remove. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)  is vowing to keep negotiating with Manchin up until the Senate takes a final vote on the spending bill.

Senate Democrats also need to run their latest immigration plan by the parliamentarian. Democrats initially indicated that they were waiting to get a final Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score before going back to the Senate referee, but Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) suggested that they could instead wait to see what passes the House. 

“I think the next step is going to be done by the House. We’ll wait to see what they report to us,” Durbin told reporters when asked about getting a CBO score. 

The House bill includes language to allow two five-year waivers for undocumented immigrants in the country since before 2011, allowing them to live and work in the United States.

Immigration advocates are pushing for House Democrats to put a plan that would pave the way for a pathway to citizenship into the bill, even as two plans have already been rejected by the Senate parliamentarian. 

Manchin vowed he wouldn’t vote to formally overrule the parliamentarian, a process that would take total unity from all 50 Democrats and Vice President Harris in the chair. Advocates are instead urging Democrats to put someone in the chair who would disregard advice from the parliamentarian.

While the immigration fight has put the spotlight on the Senate referee, the entire bill will need to go through scrubs to make sure it complies with the rules for reconciliation, the arcane budget process Democrats are using to bypass a GOP filibuster in the Senate. 

“So, first, there is the scrub. The privilege scrub. You can’t do that until the whole bill is ready in the House. They have to pass the whole bill. That takes about a week because it’s a 2,000-page bill. While we already have some text of I think seven committees, the vast majority of the legislation is in committees that haven’t gotten it ready yet,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

Durbin, Schumer’s No. 2, asked about a Senate timeline for the bill, acknowledged that it was partially dependent on the “Byrd bath,” when the bill will be combed through to make sure it complies with the budget rules, “and whether we have to go back and rewrite sections.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Bob Menendez Build Back Better Charles Schumer Climate change COP26 Dick Durbin Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Jon Tester Kirsten Gillibrand Nancy Pelosi Robert Menendez

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