Democrats face tough choices as they seek to cut back on safety net bill

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WASHINGTON – Democrats face agonizing choices about what to keep and what to remove from their massive $ 3.5 trillion social safety net program as they strive to pacify the most conservative legislators of their ranks who have hesitated at its cost and its reach.

With moderates and liberals vying for competing priorities, Democrats have a variety of options to reduce the package, ranging from outright ditching the programs on offer to cutting them down or using gimmicks to control their cost. But they have little margin for error given their slim majority in Congress, where they need the support of all Senate Democrats and all but a few in the House to hand it over to President Biden’s office.

Top Democrats scrambled to narrow their ranks over the bill on Thursday, claiming progress on what they called a “framework deal” on how to fund the plan. But they did not provide any details on which programs would be included or what the total cost would be ultimately, and left critical disagreements over which tax increases would be included and their importance.

Among the issues, even if the price remains at $ 3.5 trillion, are how long monthly payments to families with children will be maintained, incentives for businesses to switch to clean fuels, and the scale of tax increases for wealthy people and corporations.

“I’m not interested in ticking a box and putting in half the money needed to actually make an impact on people’s lives,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “The decisions will be tough, but I think we had better make the decisions, rather than putting a little money into everything.”

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Above the process, strict Senate rules on what can be included in the bill, which Democrats plan to pass using a fast-track process known as reconciliation that protects it from obstruction but the subject to strict budgetary requirements.

To complicate matters further, the leading moderates who called for a smaller package have yet to indicate the size of a bill they could accept, nor their top priorities to include.

Administration officials said the very scope of the bill serves as a sort of binding agent to keep their coalition together, offering something for everyone – moderates and progressive – and a range of agendas that it claims opinion polls, are popular with Americans of all political walks. spectrum.

Mr Biden, assembling nearly two dozen Democrats in the Oval Office this week, urged some of those moderates to explain to him what they were comfortable spending and what policies they wanted to prioritize. But at least two in attendance – Senators Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona and Joe Manchin III from West Virginia – have yet to publicly commit to a specific level of spending that they are prepared to support.

Some Liberal Democrats remain firmly attached to the $ 3.5 trillion figure, brushing aside questions about how much compromise they would accept. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent and chairman of the Budget Committee, went to the Senate to double that price and a reminder that he originally wanted almost twice as much in spending.

On Thursday, Democratic leaders attempted to clear up some of the confusion by citing their “framework agreement,” which appeared to be largely a list of tax proposals made public by both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.

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Aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the committees already agreed on a top tax rate of 39.6%, a crackdown on tax-beneficial conservation easements and the removal of tax-advantaged conservation easements. ‘a loophole that can protect huge investment gains from taxation in an individual retirement account.

“It’s a memo; this will give us ample capacity to pay for the level of investments that we – of course has not yet been decided – that we choose to make, ”said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. “It’s hardly conclusive, but it was a good step forward.”

Party leaders hope to come together around a compromise on a total cost and key elements of the social safety net bill by Monday, when a vote is expected on a bipartisan infrastructure bill. of $ 1 trillion passed by the Senate. Fearing that their more conservative colleagues will refuse to support the broader plan once the infrastructure measure is passed, the Liberals have said they will withhold their votes for the bill until the so-called Build Back Better plan. authorizes the Senate.

“It’s about values, not dollars,” President Nancy Pelosi said at her weekly press conference. “Our aim is to have very specific priorities clearly presented.”

“My preference is to fund and fully expand existing programs that we know are working rather than building programs from scratch,” said Florida Democrat Rep. Stephanie Murphy after meeting Mr. Biden. this week.

Some moderates have raised the possibility of restricting eligibility for certain programs, including free community colleges and some tax credits, to low-income people in order to reduce their cost.

Democrats could also choose to shorten the length of some programs, another way to cut costs without sacrificing cherished priorities, a method they used to lower the original $ 6 trillion price proposed by Mr. Sanders. Both House and Senate Democrats are in favor of extending monthly payments to families with children until at least 2024, for example, but adding an extra year would dramatically increase the cost of the bill.

And placing the end date on a program is a gamble, as there is no guarantee that future Congresses – especially under Republican control – would be willing to continue funding it.

Democrats currently face a similar situation regarding the debt ceiling: After a bipartisan vote to lift the limit on federal borrowing under the Trump administration, Republicans are now refusing to approve similar legislation under a Democrat-controlled government .

“You have to be, but it is the process of reconciliation more than anything else,” Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said this month when asked. asked if he was concerned about setting up a series of deadlines that could ultimately be ignored. “It’s not based on philosophy.”

Davenport Coral, Jim Tankersley and Jonathan weisman contributed reports.