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Democrats begin to narrow their differences on Biden’s social spending bill

President Biden traveled to Michigan on Oct. 5 to build public support for his economic plans. (Video: The Washington Post)

HOWELL, Mich. — Democrats in a flurry of private talks are beginning to narrow their differences over the size of President Biden's sweeping safety-net bill, as liberals signal they are open to sizable concessions on the scope of what could be the most far-reaching social legislation in years.

The discussions, which remain highly fluid, suggest that Democratic leaders are pushing to move beyond a series of angry intraparty standoffs and focus instead on whether they can coalesce around a scaled-down package. The outcome of the talks will also decide the future of a bipartisan infrastructure bill that has been held hostage in the fight.

In a virtual meeting with about a dozen liberal Democrats on Monday, Biden suggested a package in the range of $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion for the safety-net bill, according to people with knowledge of the private discussion — significantly lower than his initial goal of $3.5 trillion.

Liberals on Oct. 3 were split over the total cost for President Biden's infrastructure plan as the bill awaits a House vote. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), leader of the influential Congressional Progressive Caucus, countered with a range of $2.5 trillion to $2.9 trillion, according to three of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The gap between Biden’s maximum and Jayapal’s minimum marks a striking narrowing of differences from just last week.

Biden signaled another potential compromise when asked by reporters whether he would sign the bill if it includes the Hyde Amendment, a provision banning the use of federal funds for abortions, as some centrists want. “I’d sign it either way,” said Biden, a position likely to anger liberals.

While immersed in behind-the-scenes negotiations, Biden was also trying to build support publicly for his plans. In a speech at a union training facility here Tuesday, he downplayed the politics surrounding his agenda and sought to emphasize the ways he said it would improve ­Americans’­ lives.

“I want to set one thing straight: These bills are not about left versus right, or moderate versus progressive, or anything that pits Americans against one another,” Biden said. “These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency. They’re about opportunity versus decay. They’re about leading the world or continue to let the world pass us by.”

It is still unclear whether Democratic centrists, including Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, would agree to a figure in the range discussed by Biden and the liberal House members, but the president has been in frequent contact with them in recent days and suggested he knows what they would accept. Meanwhile, influential liberals such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have continued to lobby for the $3.5 trillion figure.

Asked about Manchin after his speech, Biden said, “It sure sounds like he’s moving. I hope that’s the case.” Manchin on Tuesday did not rule out a bill in the range $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion, CNN reported.

But Manchin, asked about that Tuesday evening, reiterated his preference for a figure of $1.5 trillion. “I think everybody knows I’m at one-five,” he said. “I’ve always been at one-five.” He declined to say whether he would be willing to entertain a higher number.

Biden’s dealmaking strategy

Beyond the numbers, the Democrats’ newly pragmatic tone suggests many in the party are concluding that, whatever their differences, the collapse of Biden’s agenda would be an overriding calamity. Operatives in both parties say the Democrats are likely to lose the House next year, and it’s unclear when they would next have the ability to enact some of their longtime goals.

But despite the flurry of talks, Democrats still face a daunting task and the prospect of more derailments.

Even if they reach an agreement on the size of a social spending bill, they must figure out precisely how to scale back the legislation, which includes expanded Medicare benefits, universal prekindergarten and free community college. That bill would then probably be paired with the bipartisan $1 trillion traditional-infrastructure package favored by centrists.

In his private discussions with lawmakers in recent days, Biden has raised the idea of means-testing some programs, meaning only people below a certain income level would qualify. Under questioning from reporters Tuesday, Biden suggested that some provisions would probably be means-tested as part of a compromise.

At Monday’s meeting, Jayapal advocated a different approach — keeping all the major elements of the safety net package but letting some expire sooner to cut costs, according to two people with knowledge of the discussion.

Some Democrats are betting that programs like free community college or universal prekindergarten care would be popular enough if enacted that it would be politically easy to renew them.

Jayapal has also been pushing to keep the spending number on the high end. She told Biden in Monday’s closed-door meeting that even the $3.5 trillion figure, which now seems certain to shrink, was a major compromise from liberals’ initial goals.

Democrats face tough choices in shrinking Biden’s plans

Democratic leaders say the range of $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion proposed by Biden for the social spending package could be acceptable to Manchin and Sinema, the two holdout senators from the party’s moderate wing who wield enormous influence in an evenly divided Senate.

Still, Manchin has stressed the potential impact on the nation’s debt despite Biden’s assurances that the bill would be paid for, and Sinema, who has been negotiating directly with the White House, has declined to publicly state her demands.

Biden’s decision to hold long meetings early this week with House moderates and liberals, but not with Sinema or Manchin, signal a desire to build a consensus among Democrats beyond those two, said one White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategy.

If successful, that could build pressure on Manchin and Sinema to fall in line or risk being seen as the only roadblocks in the way of a historic triumph for the party.

Biden has shown flashes of irritation in recent days about the hesitancy of the two moderates in embracing his agenda. “I was able to close the deal on 99 percent of my party,” Biden said Monday. “I need 50 votes in the Senate. I have 48.” The only holdouts, he added pointedly, are “two. Two people.”

Jayapal called Monday’s meeting “very productive” and added, “Progressives fought to get the full Biden agenda back on track, and now we are beginning negotiations to deliver it to working people, families and our communities.”

The president spoke Tuesday at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 324 training facility, in a battleground area won narrowly by President Donald Trump but represented by a centrist Democrat, Rep. Elissa Slotkin. Pro-Trump protesters gathered nearby, prompting an apparent reference from Biden and a reminder from the president of his electoral victory.

Biden’s travel strategy is guided in part by a desire to show that his plans are popular in swing areas represented by at-risk Democrats, according to the White House official.

He touted the infrastructure plan’s investments in roads and bridges Tuesday, as well as the social safety net’s provisions to underwrite the costs of education.

The president spoke against the backdrop of construction equipment, including one yellow excavator with a “Build Back Better” sign draped over the front. A large American flag hung from a tall crane.

Behind the scenes, Biden is diving deeper into the talks with Democratic lawmakers.

On Tuesday morning, he met virtually with House Democrats who represent competitive swing districts. In that session, he stressed that all eyes are on the party to carry out its promises and said he would work for the rest of his presidency to enact any items that are cut from the current package, according to officials familiar with the conversation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks.

The Democratic “front-liners” — that is, vulnerable members — had a message for Biden, too, said the officials: The party needs to start thinking about how to sell the expansive spending package to voters in a way that emphasizes its economic benefits but doesn’t overplay expectations.

And as the Democratic lawmakers raised a litany of policy priorities with Biden — such as climate change, Medicaid expansion, prescription drug prices and the child tax credit — they stressed that they needed both pillars of the president’s domestic agenda passed to shore up their reelection bids.

With even the party’s liberals now accepting that the social spending package must shrink significantly from $3.5 trillion, Biden and the lawmakers he’s been meeting with have been more vigorously exploring options for paring it back.

The president in particular brought up the notion of limiting who qualifies for certain benefits such as free community college, according to people familiar with the Monday and Tuesday discussions. Biden did not appear to take a position for or against doing so but raised the idea, these people said.

Biden said Tuesday that his meeting with moderate Democrats went well and that they are on the same page with him. But in some ways, relations between the White House and the centrists have appeared to worsen lately.

Notably, Biden drew anger from some moderates last week by effectively siding with liberals who refused to vote for the infrastructure bill unless a deal was reached first on the social spending plan.  

The warming relationship between Biden and the left, on the other hand, was evident during Monday’s conversation, the people with knowledge of the discussion said. Biden told the liberal lawmakers they were some of his biggest supporters, adding that he had seen them praise his agenda on television news programs.

Some liberals returned the compliment. “I have trust in the president’s judgment to come up with a fair compromise that’s going to move the agenda forward,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who participated in Monday’s meeting.

Kim and Sotomayor reported from Washington. Tyler Pager contributed to this report.