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Democrats’ social spending bill falters ahead of holiday deadline

Sen. Joe Manchin, wearing a mask, waits for an elevator at the Capitol
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) in the Capitol on Wednesday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Democrats’ hopes of pushing their social spending and climate bill through the Senate by Christmas are faltering amid intraparty division, a potentially significant setback for President Biden’s top legislative priority.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had set Christmas as his deadline to advance the bill through the Senate. But with the vote tally falling short and important procedural work still to be done, the emerging reality on Capitol Hill is that the holiday deadline will slip, leaving Democrats with no choice but to come back in January and try again.

Biden conceded as much in a statement Thursday night, noting that “it takes time to finalize these agreements,” but he expressed optimism.

“We will advance this work together over the days and weeks ahead; Leader Schumer and I are determined to see the bill successfully on the floor as early as possible,” he said.

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Missing Schumer’s self-imposed deadline is not fatal for Biden’s agenda. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) canceled planned votes on the bill more than once before it was approved.

But the prospect of ending the year with no Senate vote underscores the deep division between centrist Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and most other Senate Democrats, who are aligned to pass the bill as it stands. They are still far apart on the overall price tag, a key child tax credit and a ban on offshore oil drilling. There is some doubt Democrats would have any better shot at winning over Manchin and, to a lesser extent, fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona in the new year.

Missing the year-end deadline would likely mean that a child tax credit that has been sending checks to many parents will expire for at least a month, an unnerving prospect for many Democrats who have touted its success. The tax credit rolled out in July as part of the American Rescue Plan, the Democrats’ COVID-19 relief bill.

Democrats emerged from a closed-door meeting Thursday — one that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called “intense” — saying they hoped to enact the bill by year’s end. None were ready to declare Biden’s agenda dead for the calendar year, but participants acknowledged it would be all but impossible to pass the bill in the next two weeks.

“Let’s face it, even if there was full agreement, we’ve not finished all the scrubs and baths — the parliamentary process,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), referring to the intensive process of reviewing the bill to ensure it complies with Senate rules.

“I don’t think it’s going to be [done] before Christmas,” said Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.). “But it shouldn’t be — it should be when we’re ready.”

Still eager to end the year with a significant accomplishment, Democrats are hoping to change direction and enact a major voting rights bill — which would undo voting restrictions enacted in Republican-led states — through a carve-out of the Senate filibuster. But that doesn’t appear to have enough votes either — Manchin opposes such an action unless it is bipartisan. Republicans almost universally oppose the voting rights legislation. Sinema doesn’t support it either.

After months of mounting frustration with Manchin, several Democrats went public with their annoyance this week that the huge spending bill has stalled. Many Democrats believe that its passage is necessary to ensure that they have any shot at maintaining power after the 2022 midterm election.

“A 50-50 Senate is really problematic — I’ve used the word ‘sucks,’” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “Yes, I am frustrated.”

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the majority whip, said he was “frustrated and disappointed.”

“We’ve missed an opportunity,” he said. “But I’m not giving up.”

House progressives were worried about this exact scenario earlier this year when they demanded that Democrats link together a smaller, bipartisan infrastructure bill with the social spending bill. They originally said they would withhold their votes from the bipartisan plan unless they had assurance that Manchin and Sinema would support the larger spending measure, known as “Build Back Better.”

But ultimately, the progressives helped pass the bipartisan plan, relying on Biden’s assurance that he could deliver the Senate votes on the larger bill. The failure to meet the Christmas deadline could resurrect progressives’ concerns about Biden’s ability to deliver on that pledge.

The approximately $1.75-trillion bill would fortify the nation’s social safety net by expanding tax credits under the Affordable Care Act, expanding Medicare to include hearing aids, and setting up a universal prekindergarten and child-care program, among other plans. It would also fund about $500 billion in programs addressing climate change.

Manchin, whose objections have already forced Democrats to reduce the size of the package from an initial $3.5 trillion, has in recent weeks expressed opposition to an extension of the child tax credit unless it is a full, 10-year extension. He argues that putting it in the bill as a short-term program is a budget gimmick since it is likely to be extended. But taking such a step raises the cost higher than he’d like.

Biden has met individually with the West Virginian several times this year. He’d thought Manchin’s sign-off in October to a framework for the eventual legislation would lock in his support for the final package, but the senator has continued to raise new concerns. Phone conversations this week between the two have not resolved the impasse.

But Biden stated Thursday evening that Manchin had recommitted to the $1.7-trillion spending level agreed to in October and that their conversations would continue.

“I believe that we will bridge our differences and advance the ‘Build Back Better’ plan, even in the face of fierce Republican opposition,” the president said.

Although Biden won’t allow aides to air their frustrations over negotiations in the media or do so himself, some of them have privately conceded that the president is miffed at Manchin’s willingness to stand in the way of his domestic agenda.

“Joe Manchin has been camped out in the Lincoln bedroom and has his own parking space at the White House, he’s been there so often. I couldn’t ask for Joe Biden to do more in his effort to find common ground with Joe Manchin,” Durbin said.

While Democrats don’t yet have the votes to pass the measure, they are reviewing the entire bill with the Senate parliamentarian to ensure that it complies with the chamber’s rules. If any provisions don’t abide by the rules, they will probably be axed.

Democrats are concerned that the parliamentarian will rule against the bill’s immigration policy, which would grant deportation protection and work permits to some people in the country illegally.

As they eye their flights home before Christmas, Democrats may be left with no year-end accomplishment other than passing a huge backlog of Biden administration appointments. A list of 22 nominees is expected to be cleared by week’s end.

One key name not on that list is that of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has been nominated to be ambassador to India. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on his nomination this week, but it is not expected to be taken up by the full Senate until early next year.


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