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Essential Politics: How the shape of Biden’s spending plan could define its political impact

Pressure on Democrats to slash the cost of the Biden-Harris administration’s $3.5-trillion spending bill is forcing them to reconsider how they structure and market the ambitious package of social and climate programs at the center of their agenda.

Does it make sense to focus on just a few programs with long lifespans, or is it better to fund a smorgasbord of initiatives over just a few years? What are the implications of targeting programs to those in need, or offering them to a broader section of the electorate?

Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics: Kamala Harris edition. This week I’ll look at how the White House and Democratic lawmakers are seeking to answer such difficult questions. Time is running out on President Biden, Harris and Democrats — they have just a few short weeks to enact complex legislation that could play a key role in determining their electoral fortunes in 2022 and 2024.

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Plan will define Harris too

Let’s quickly establish a few points:

1.) This spending package is named for the Biden-Harris campaign slogan, “Build Back Better,” so it’s clearly the centerpiece of their governing agenda.

2.) If you believe Harris is running for president, either in 2024 or 2028, this bill will be a defining aspect of her campaign. If Biden runs for reelection in 2024, as he has indicated, Harris is likely to be his running mate, and the two of them will campaign on whatever they pass.

3.) Resistance from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) and other holdout Democrats is forcing Biden and congressional leaders to slash the package to around $2 trillion, give or take a few giant rounding errors.

4.) If Democrats can’t make a deal, they get nothing. That is a big problem for a party that is already facing a tough landscape in the 2022 midterm elections.

“There are choices that need to be made,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday. “That’s the point we’re at now, given there will be fewer dollars that will be spent.”

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The pros and cons of shorter programs

The political answers to structuring a deal may differ from policy answers, just as short-term considerations may be at odds with long-term calculations.

Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and one of the lawmakers closest to Biden, thinks Democrats erred by focusing their sales pitch on the huge price tag of decade-long programs.

Coons said he favors a more limited approach that puts resources into “a few powerful programs and making sure over the next couple of years they have a strong enough impact on families all over the country that folks see what it’s done for them and their families and say, ‘That’s something I want to continue.’”

The senator told my colleague Jennifer Haberkorn, who has written extensively about these Democratic debates, that he would support funding programs only temporarily, out of necessity. That would set up a confrontation with Republicans in upcoming elections over whether to make them last longer.

Coons did not name the programs he would keep, but many Democrats believe those designed to help children — tax credits, childcare subsidies, universal pre-k programs — are among the biggest political winners.

The risk in Coons’ approach is that those programs could find themselves vulnerable to Republican attacks. It took several congressional election cycles for Obamacare, passed in 2010, to become politically popular. In the meantime, Republicans won elections on promises to repeal it, coming closest during the Trump administration.

One reason Obamacare was unpopular at the beginning is that it took time to roll out. Remember the website crashing? Some of Biden’s more ambitious plans could also take time to get going, leaving them at even more risk of political extinction.

Many progressives are willing to take the risk of short-term funding but don’t want to lose other aspects of the plan. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Freemont) told me he would fund things for just a few years. But he does not want to give in to Manchin’s demands to more narrowly target benefits to the poor and working class.

“What you’re talking about is a debate over whether the middle class should be included or not. And progressives say ‘Yes, you should include be included,’” he said.

Progressives like him worry that excluding people will weaken political support for the programs. Instead, he proposes raising taxes on higher earners, while ensuring they are also eligible for such benefits as childcare payments and family leave.

Haberkorn and I wrote about this debate last week. Several economists said that even if Democrats exclude more higher earners from getting paid leave, childcare and other benefits, they will still need to cut some additional pieces of their agenda, such as Medicare expansion, if they want to lower the overall cost to meet Manchin’s demands.

The exact math is still fuzzy because the spending bill has not been evaluated by the Congressional Budget Office.

Bear in mind that some programs on the chopping block are potential political winners. For example, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) champions an expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision coverage. Policymakers say it may not be the best use of limited money. But older voters do show up at the polls.

Jason Furman, an economist who advised President Obama during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, told me the administration targeted most of that plan toward getting health insurance for the poorest Americans, those making less than 200% of the poverty limit.

But in a bid to make Obamacare more broadly popular, they sprinkled in a few things designed to please middle and upper middle-class voters. The biggest was guaranteeing that children under the age of 26 could get health insurance on their parents’ plans.

Was that enough of a sweetener? Critics on the left argue that Democrats could have done better politically, and sooner, with a broader program that gave more Americans access to lower cost healthcare.

Furman said the argument that programs targeting the poor are most vulnerable to getting eliminated is “massively overrated.”

He points to Medicaid and the earned income tax credit — programs geared toward lower income Americans that have thrived under both parties.

Furman, who is in touch with Biden administration officials, said the administration is gaming out all the options as it negotiates with Democrats.

“They have their priorities, but their biggest priority is to figure out the magic combination that gets this through Congress,” he said.

There is no evidence that Harris has been a central player in brokering a deal. Officials say she has called numerous lawmakers to win their support. But her main job has been selling the legislation publicly. Harris also plans to be on the road a lot ahead of next year’s mid-terms, helping Democrats run on whatever bill they pass this year.

“Her number one job and role is to help President Biden get this over the finish line,” said Donna Brazile, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee who is close to Harris.

Brazile said Harris has little interest in marking pieces of the legislation as her own. “At the end of the day, vice presidents tend to amplify the president’s message.”

Brazile has some advice on the marketing plan. Like Coons, she would like to see Democrats focus more attention on how regular people’s lives will change and less on the price tag.

“Whether it’s a 10-year program or five-year program, they shouldn’t describe it in terms of a program,” she said.

Instead, she said, Democrats should talk about how many people will be going to college or getting dental coverage or getting help with their childcare.

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The view from Washington

— The House raised the nation’s debt ceiling on Tuesday, averting a default for about three months but setting up a tougher political hurdle for Democrats at the end of the year, reports Jennifer Haberkorn.

— From Chris Megerian: The Port of Los Angeles will begin operating around the clock as the White House pushes to clear supply chain bottlenecks threatening the holiday shopping season and slowing the country’s economic recovery, senior Biden administration officials said.

— Biden will not block a tranche of documents sought by a House committee’s investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, setting up a showdown with former President Trump. Meanwhile, Trump intends to assert executive privilege in the investigation.

The view from California

— The latest in The Times’ extreme heat series from Anna M. Phillips: Major retailers are aggressively expanding their warehouses against a backdrop of increasing temperatures in Southern California. Workers say they’re boiling inside.

— When two of the fiercest rivals in all of professional sports — teams 400 miles apart in California — face off in a dramatic playoff series, what’s a politician to do? Choosing Dodgers or Giants is easier for some than others, writes Seema Mehta.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom has seen plenty of legislation this week, including a bill allowing cannabis advertising on freeway billboards (vetoed); one outlawing the sale of new gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers and chain saws (signed into law); and others reducing prison sentences for people convicted of drug- and gang-related crimes (signed.)

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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