Senate Democrats begin to concede $2 trillion economic package may be delayed into 2022

Source: By Tony Romm, Washington Post • Posted: Friday, December 17, 2021

Lawmakers had hoped to reach deal by Christmas, but they have been unable to resolve all of their differences and broker a deal with Manchin.

Washington, D.C. — DECEMBER 15: Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The dawning acknowledgment on Capitol Hill after months of negotiations — some even involving Biden personally — generated fresh frustration among a party still struggling to overcome its own divisions and finalize a measure that has bedeviled them now for nearly a year. And it raised the odds that a key federal program that provides monthly payments to roughly 35 million families could expire in a matter of days.

Even after considerable legislative legwork, Democrats on Thursday said they continued to tinker with a slew of spending proposals related to climate, health care and taxes. They admitted they also had not yet completed the lengthy, intricate process that would allow them to bring the bill, known as the Build Back Better Act, to the chamber floor in a manner that could skirt Republican opposition.

And some Democrats said that they are far from a resolution on a now-familiar dispute: whether to seize on their rare, narrow and potent majorities afforded them in the last election to pursue aggressive, expensive economic reforms — or reel in their ambitions to assuage the fiscal conservatism of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

Throughout the debate, the centrist holdout has wielded almost unrivaled power to shape his party’s agenda, since Democrats in the Senate cannot adopt their bill — no matter its size — without his supportive vote. As chamber leaders have sought to speed up their efforts entering this week, hoping to adopt the proposal by Christmas, Manchin only has doubled down in opposing the sprawling measure because of its size and scope.

Days of private talks between Manchin and Biden still have produced no truce, illustrating instead the widening gap between the moderate lawmaker and many in his party. With so many in limbo, some Democrats appeared newly resigned on Thursday to the growing prospects of another delay, perhaps into next year, in a debate that has already experienced no shortage of them.

Speaking to reporters Thursday morning, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) appeared to channel the feelings of his caucus when he described his mood as “frustrated and disappointed.”

“We missed an opportunity,” he added, “but I’m not giving up.”

The December debacle marked only the newest political hurdle for Democrats since they embarked this spring on a broader effort to transform Biden’s economic vision to reality. In shepherding to passage a bipartisan infrastructure law — and faltering so far on the remainder of the president’s plans — the long legislative slog has forced Democrats to confront the limits of their own majority and tested the president’s acumen as a veteran Senate dealmaker.

Republicans throughout the year have balked at Biden’s spending plans, decrying the roughly $2 trillion endeavor as wasteful and socialist at a time of rapid inflation. The possibility that Democrats might have to punt their signature initiative into 2022 drew supportive jeers earlier Thursday from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who took to the chamber floor to slam his political foes.

“The best Christmas gift Washington could give working families would be putting this bad bill on ice,” he said.

Hours after McConnell spoke, Democrats filed into a private lunch at the Capitol — bracing for what might be one final, behind-the-scenes reckoning over their failure to adopt the $2 trillion measure before Christmas, a self-imposed deadline aired repeatedly by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the chamber floor.

Many Democrats declined to talk as they entered the roughly hour-long lunch. Manchin, for his part, departed early — telling reporters gathered outside he had “nothing” to say about the discussions. Others exited exhibiting a degree of uncertainty about the road ahead, hoping they might still be able to salvage the spending bill for one final end-of-the-year push.

“I don’t think it’s going to be before Christmas, but it shouldn’t be — it should be when we’re ready,” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) told reporters, adding he thought it might be “one of the first things after the holiday.”

In the meantime, some Democrats began discussing a potential shift in their strategy, believing they might be nearing a breakthrough on another long-stalled priority — reforming the nation’s elections and voting laws — even while their economic plans remain stuck.

“I have voting rights on the brain,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), one of the leading negotiators, told reporters.

Racing past reporters, Schumer declined to address the timing of either bill, saying only in a brief aside that Democrats had a “very good discussion.”

In its current form, the Build Back Better Act aims to expand Medicare to covering hearing benefits, authorize new universal prekindergarten and other child care aid, invest billions to combat climate change and bolster federal safety-net programs that assist low-income Americans. Democrats planned to finance the bill largely through changes to tax laws that target millionaires and companies that pay nothing annually to the federal government.

Despite its sprawling nature, the package still marked a stark departure from some Democrats’ original vision. Lawmakers including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the leader of the chamber’s budget committee, initially came to the debate with high hopes that they might spend three times as much on a more ambitious roster of programs. But their reluctant cuts reflected a months-long campaign to try to assuage holdouts, especially Manchin, without whom Democrats cannot invoke special Senate rules to adopt the bill in the narrowly divided chamber.

Manchin, however, never endorsed the package. When Biden unveiled a proposal in October that essentially halved the size of the Build Back Better Act, setting its price tag at $1.75 trillion, the moderate senator never endorsed it. Days later, he blasted it for “shell games.”

House Democrats later expanded that bill even further, incorporating once-removed elements including a plan to provide millions of Americans with paid leave benefits that Manchin previously had opposed. But their political push — a bid to pressure the holdout senator into caving — only further invoked his ire.

In many respects, Democrats cut the Build Back Better Act by slimming down the life span of the programs they sought to authorize. Yet Manchin saw that as gimmicky, demanding instead that the bill fund every element over 10 years while keeping its total cost under $1.75 trillion.

The senator’s position, communicated directly to Biden this week, would have forced the party to make crippling cuts to some of their most prized proposals. That included a plan to extend an expanded federal child tax credit to millions of American families, who may have seen their final payment under the program this week.

On Thursday, Democrats including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the leader of the Finance Committee, said that they haven’t given up in trying to prevent the program from expiring in a matter of days. But some acknowledged that a stand-alone effort to adopt the child tax credit is likely to face potentially insurmountable political hurdles in the waning moments of the year.

“Fifty Republicans are against this,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio.). Asked if Democrats could adopt the extension on its own, he replied: “We’re going to keep it together, and it’s going to help drive the whole bill.”