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House panel OKs Democrats’ $3.5-trillion bill amid crunch time for Biden agenda

House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth, joined by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, talks at a lectern
House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), joined at left by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), talks to reporters Tuesday at the Capitol in Washington.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Democrats on Saturday pushed a $3.5-trillion, 10-year bill to strengthen social safety net and climate programs through the House Budget Committee. But one Democrat opposed the measure, in an illustration of the challenges party leaders face in getting the near unanimity they’ll need to push the sprawling package through Congress.

The Democratic-dominated panel, meeting virtually, approved the measure on a near-party-line vote, 20-17. The procedural passage means the bill edges a step closer to debate by the full House. Under Budget Committee rules, the members weren’t allowed to significantly amend the 2,465-page measure, the product of 13 other House committees.

The more important work has been happening in an opaque procession of mostly unannounced phone calls, meetings and other bargaining sessions among party leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers.

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Moderate Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) joined all 16 Republicans in opposing the legislation. He was among three Democrats who earlier this month voted against a plan favored by most in his party to lower pharmaceutical costs by letting Medicare negotiate for the prescription drugs it buys.

Party leaders have tried for weeks to resolve differences among Democrats over the package’s final price tag, which seems sure to shrink. There are also disputes over which of its initiatives should be reshaped; among them are expanded Medicare, tax breaks for children and healthcare, a push toward cleaner energy and higher levies on the rich and corporations.

Democrats’ wafer-thin majorities in the House and Senate mean compromise is mandatory. Before the measure that was approved Saturday reaches the House floor — the timing is uncertain — it is expected to be changed to reflect whatever House-Senate accords have been reached, and additional revisions are likely.

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The bill embodies the crux of President Biden’s top domestic goals. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the Budget Committee, cited “decades of disinvestment” in healthcare, education, child care and the environment as the rationale for the legislation.

“The futures of millions of Americans and their families are at stake. We can no longer afford the costs of neglect and inaction. The time to act is now,” Yarmuth said.

Republicans say the proposal is unneeded, unaffordable amid accumulated federal debt exceeding $28 trillion and reflects Democrats’ drive to insert government into people’s lives. Its tax boosts will cost jobs and include credits for buying electric vehicles, purchases often made by people with comfortable incomes, they said.

“This bill is a disaster for working-class families,” said Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, the committee’s top Republican. “It’s a big giveaway to the wealthy; it’s a laundry list of agenda items pulled right out of the Bernie Sanders socialist playbook,” he said, referring to the independent Vermont senator known for his criticism of wealth inequality.

The unusual weekend session occurred as top Democrats amp up efforts to end increasingly bitter disputes between the party’s centrist and progressive wings that threaten to undermine Biden’s agenda.

Biden conceded Friday that talks among Democrats were at a “stalemate,” though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have been more positive in an apparent effort to build momentum and soothe differences. A collapse of the measure at the hands of the president’s own party would be a wounding preview to the coming election year, in which House and Senate control are at stake.

To nail down moderates’ support for an earlier budget blueprint, Pelosi promised to begin House consideration of another pillar of Biden’s domestic plans, a $1-trillion collection of roadway and other infrastructure projects, by Monday. Pelosi reaffirmed this week that the infrastructure debate would begin Monday.

But many moderates who consider the infrastructure bill their top goal also want to cut the $3.5-trillion social and environment package and trim or reshape some of its programs. Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have been among the most visible centrists demanding a smaller price tag.

In response, progressives, whose top priority is the $3.5-trillion measure, are threatening to vote against the infrastructure bill should it come up for a vote this week. Their opposition seems likely to be enough to scuttle it, and Pelosi hasn’t said when a vote on final passage of the infrastructure measure will occur.

With each portion of the party threatening to upend the other’s most cherished goal — a political disaster in the making — top Democrats are using the moment to accelerate talks on the massive social and climate legislation. Compromise is a requirement, because the party can lose no votes in the Senate and a maximum of three in the House to succeed in the narrowly split Congress.

Biden met with more than 20 congressional Democrats this week. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said such meetings would continue next week.


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