U.S. President Joe Biden declared Thursday he had reached a “historic economic framework” with Democrats in Congress on his sweeping domestic policy package, a hard-fought yet dramatically scaled-back deal announced just before he departed for overseas summits.
Mr. Biden’s remarks at the White House came after he travelled to Capitol Hill to make the case to House Democrats for the still-robust domestic package – US$1.75-trillion of social services and climate change programs – that the White House says can pass the 50-50 Senate.
“It will fundamentally change the lives of millions of people for the better,” Mr. Biden said of the agreement, which he badly wanted before the summits to show the world American democracy still works.
“Let’s get this done.”
Together with a nearly US$1-trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill heading for final votes possibly as soon as Thursday, Mr. Biden claimed it would be a domestic achievement modelled on those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
“I need your votes,” Mr. Biden told the lawmakers earlier, according to a person who requested anonymity to discuss the private remarks.
Mr. Biden was eager to have a deal in hand before departing for the global summits. But final votes are still a ways off. At best, he left with a revised package that has lost some top priorities, frustrating many Democrats still pressing to include them as the President’s ambitions make way for the political realities of the narrowly divided Congress.
Paid family leave and efforts to lower prescription drug pricing are now gone entirely from the package, drawing outrage from some lawmakers and advocates.
Still in the mix, a long list of other priorities: free prekindergarten for all children, expanded health care programs – including the launch of a new US$35-billion hearing-aid benefit for people with Medicare – and US$555-billion to tackle climate change.
There’s also a one-year extension of a child-care tax credit that was put in place during the COVID-19 rescue, as well as new child-care subsidies. An additional US$100-billion to bolster the immigration and border processing system could boost the overall package to US$1.85-trillion if it clears Senate rules.
One pivotal Democratic holdout, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, said, “I look forward to getting this done.”
However, another, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was less committal. “This is all in the hands of the House right now.”
The two Democrats have almost single handedly reduced the size and scope of their party’s big vision.
Republicans remain overwhelmingly opposed.
Taking form after months of negotiations, Mr. Biden’s emerging bill would still be among the most sweeping of its kind in a generation, modelled on New Deal and Great Society programs. The White House calls it the largest-ever investment in climate change and the biggest improvement to the United States’ health care system in more than a decade.
In his meeting with lawmakers at the Capitol, Mr. Biden made clear how important it was to show progress as he headed to the summits.
“We are at an inflection point,” he said. “The rest of the world wonders whether we can function.”
With U.S. elections on the horizon, he said it’s not “hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week.”
At one point, Mr. Biden “asked for a spirited enthusiastic vote on his plan,” Democratic Representative Richard Neal said.
Twice over the course of the hour-long meeting, Democratic lawmakers rose to their feet and started yelling: “Vote, vote, vote,” Representative Gerald Connolly said.
Mr. Biden’s proposal would be paid for by imposing a new 5-per-cent surtax on income of more than US$10-million a year, and instituting a new 15-per-cent corporate minimum tax, keeping with his plans to have no new taxes on those earning less than US$400,000 a year, officials said.
Revenue to help pay for the package would also come from rolling back some of the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts, along with stepped-up enforcement of tax-dodgers by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Mr. Biden has vowed to cover the entire cost of the plan, ensuring it does not pile onto the debt load.
With the framework being swiftly converted to full legislative text for review, lawmakers and aides cautioned it had not yet been agreed to.
Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal, the progressive caucus leader, said unveiling the new framework “will show tremendous momentum. But we want to see the actual text because we don’t want any confusion and misunderstandings.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Mr. Biden asked the House to vote Thursday on the related $1-trillion infrastructure bill that already cleared the Senate but became tangled in deliberations over the broader bill. It faces a Sunday deadline, when routine transportation funds risk expiring.
“When the President gets off that plane we want him to have a vote of confidence from this Congress,” Ms. Pelosi told lawmakers, the person at the private meeting said.
But by afternoon, no votes were scheduled. Progressives have been withholding their support for the roads-and-bridges bill as leverage until they have a commitment that Mr. Manchin, Ms. Sinema and the other senators are ready to vote on Mr. Biden’s bigger package.
“Hell no,” Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib said about allowing the smaller infrastructure bill to pass.
Democratic Representative Cori Bush shared her own story of making “pennies” at low-wage work, struggling to afford child care and wanting to ensure constituents have better.
“We need both bills to ride together. And we don’t have that right now,” Ms. Bush said. “I feel a bit bamboozled because this was not what I thought was coming today.”
To push his big package to completion in the divided Senate, Mr. Biden needs all Democrats’ support, with no votes to spare. The House is also split with just a few votes margin.
The two holdout Democratic senators Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema now hold enormous power, essentially deciding whether Mr. Biden will be able to deliver on the Democrats’ major campaign promises.
Ms. Sinema has been instrumental in pushing her party off a promise to undo the Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts, forcing Democrats to take a different approach from simply raising top rates on individuals and corporations.
And Mr. Manchin’s resistance forced serious cutbacks to a clean-energy plan and the outright elimination of paid family leave. His insisted there be work requirements for parents receiving the new child-care subsidies.
At the same time, progressives achieved one key priority – Vermont independent Bernie Sanders’s proposal to provide hearing-aid benefits for people on Medicare. However, his ideas to also include dental and vision care were left out.
Other expanded health care programs build on the Affordable Care Act by funding subsidies to help people buy insurance policies and coverage in states that declined the Obamacare program.
Over all, the new package also sets up political battles in future years. The child-care tax credit expires alongside next year’s midterm elections, while much of the health care funding will expire in 2025, ensuring a campaign issue ahead of the next presidential election.
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