Dems confront flagging momentum for $1T-plus deal
Updated: 10/26/2021 07:37 PM EDT
The White House is hosting a flurry of last-minute meetings with influential groups of House Democrats and key senators on Tuesday as party leaders in both chambers raced to resolve disagreements still snarling President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda.
In a sign of potential progress, Biden is meeting with Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) Tuesday evening, according to several sources. The discussions come as the White House tries to close in on a deal on a framework for the party's $1 trillion-plus social spending package before the president leaves for an overseas trip.
Even as they get closer to agreement with Senate centrist holdouts on their social spending megabill, Democrats face hangups over major issues that include taxes, Medicare and Medicaid expansion, and paid leave — all of which are in flux as lawmakers keep negotiating.
As talks drag on, party leaders are still sounding confident. After a caucus lunch Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer insisted his party was "closer to reaching a final agreement" on Biden's agenda even as he offered few specifics on how big-ticket disputes were being handled.
"We're moving toward finding sweet spots in every one of these disputed issues," Schumer said before ending his weekly press conference early, citing a call with the White House waiting for him on negotiations.
Schumer outlined the party's remaining areas of disagreement during a private caucus lunch. Remaining hurdles include prescription drug pricing, expanding Medicare benefits, creating a paid family leave program and closing the coverage gap for states that declined to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, according to attendees.
The bill's tax provisions were also a central topic of discussion, with Schumer and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) discussing the corporate minimum tax as one way to bring moderate Manchin and Sinema on board.
The proposal, unveiled by the Finance Committee on Tuesday, would target large companies with more than $1 billion in profits and apply a 15 percent minimum tax on those profits. It was released by Wyden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Angus King (I-Maine), who later told reporters the tax could raise between $300 and $400 billion.
Within hours of the Senate Democrats' meeting, Sinema publicly declared her support for that 15 percent corporate minimum tax, which she called a “commonsense step toward ensuring that highly profitable corporations — which sometimes can avoid the current corporate tax rate — pay a reasonable minimum corporate tax on their profits.”
Warren told reporters that Manchin is also "behind" the corporate minimum tax, heightening its prospects.
The burst of dealmaking comes after Sinema also met Tuesday morning with top White House officials, including counselor Steve Ricchetti and Deese, according to a source familiar with their meeting. Sinema is trying to reach a deal as soon as Tuesday, according to a person who spoke to the Arizona Democrat.
The White House has also stepped up its outreach to House Democrats, hosting a cross section of lawmakers for briefings Tuesday afternoon. Members of key groups including the Asian, Hispanic, Black, Equality and Women's caucuses went to the White House, according to a source familiar with the meeting, and Biden and top advisers including Susan Rice, Brian Deese and Cedric Richmond joined the discussion.
Biden told the group of lawmakers “we are at the point where we can literally move forward,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), another attendee.
Yet House and Senate Democrats in both chambers are still on different pages, with House Democrats increasingly frustrated as their Senate counterparts wrangle with Sinema and Manchin over many of the policies in the bill.
One major issue that consumed most of Thursday was a proposed tax on billionaires that Senate Democrats were hoping to use as a partial financing replacement for tax increases opposed by Sinema. But the tax was met a wall of opposition from House Democrats, who panned the complicated proposal and are skeptical it can be fleshed out on Democratic leaders' dayslong timetable to reach a framework agreement.
House Democrats complained Tuesday they had yet to see text of the billionaire tax proposal pushed by Wyden.
With negotiators inching toward a final agreement on the long-planned social spending package, Democrats are running up against an end-of-week deadline before Biden leaves for Europe for the G20 and the U.N. climate conference with world leaders. Some Democratic leaders offered rosy projections earlier in the day, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer telling reporters that a framework could be finished “in the next few hours.”
"It'd be better to have a framework before the president leaves but I don't know whether that can happen. I can just say there's more urgency and more conversations happening this week than last week,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.
But privately, many Democrats were more skeptical that something could be formalized by Tuesday evening with so many issues still unresolved. Speaker Nancy Pelosi huddled with Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) later Tuesday.
“There are some people who just want us to vote [the infrastructure bill] out on a framework. And I explained why our members don’t want to do that,” Jayapal told reporters after the meeting.
Pelosi disagreed, saying she sees a framework as "enough to proceed."
Earlier in the day, the speaker sat down with a group of Democrats from Virginia and New Jersey, who are eager to see progress on Biden's agenda before the two states hold gubernatorial races early next month.
In another Tuesday morning private meeting with the caucus, Pelosi repeatedly extolled the progress that she and other top Democrats have made toward an agreement, reiterating that 90 percent of the bill is complete. She told members that they could vote on both the broader social spending legislation and a politically linked infrastructure bill this week, though senior Democrats have said a vote on the full social spending measure is unlikely given the time crunch.
"There's not that much more time. We have to have decisions largely today — a little bit into tomorrow — so we can proceed," Pelosi said as she left that meeting.
Pelosi also told progressives, who have been unwilling to back the infrastructure deal until they feel confident in Senate centrist support for social spending, that the House will not vote on the roads and bridges bill until there is a detailed framework.
“We will not be able to pass the [bipartisan infrastructure bill] unless we have a clear agreement that the same bill that passes the house, passes the Senate, no amendments, no vote-a-rama,” Pelosi told her caucus behind closed doors, according to sources familiar with her remarks. The House Rules Committee would also move forward with its preparations for a vote, she said.
The speaker’s remarks were intended to help reassure progressives ahead of that infrastructure vote expected this week, while serving as the beginning of a broad sales pitch for the entire Democratic party.
But some progressives remained dubious of the possibility of an imminent deal.
“I think every week has about the same probability,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), continued to dig in on expanding Medicare to include more health benefits for seniors, one of his top priorities that has drawn opposition from Manchin. The ongoing Manchin-Sanders dispute over inclusion of those Medicare benefits promises to prolong Democrats' march to a deal this week.
“Bottom line is that any reconciliation bill must include serious negotiations of Medicare and the pharmaceutical industry to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and a serious reconciliation bill must include expanding Medicare to cover dental, hearing aids and vision,” Sanders said.
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.