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Democrats haggle over Medicare, other spending priorities as Biden enters critical week

The president wants to reach a deal and bring tangible signs of progress on climate change to a meeting of world leaders in Scotland.

President Biden on Oct. 25 said he hoped to reach an agreement this week on his major spending plans before attending a climate summit in Scotland. (Video: Reuters)
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Congressional Democrats returned to work Monday for what may be one of the most decisive weeks of Biden’s presidency, as they near a deal that could dislodge roughly $3 trillion in stalled economic spending initiatives.

The immediate task facing party lawmakers is a proposal to overhaul the nation’s health care, education, climate and tax laws. A war over the package’s price tag and policy scope has precluded its progress for months, though meetings between President Biden and top Democrats continued into the weekend, raising fresh hopes that they could strike an agreement imminently.

Lawmakers continued to wrestle with some of the core elements of their still-forming bill, including Democrats’ plans to try to expand Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) reiterated his opposition to that proposal on Monday and a related effort to try to expand Medicaid coverage, even as he told reporters that he thinks Democrats can finalize the broad contours of the spending package this week.

Democrats move to finalize new "billionaires" tax proposal

“As far as conceptually, we should,” Manchin said.

Such a deal could unite the party’s sparring liberals and moderates, including Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who for months have angered their fellow Democrats by seeking cuts to the sweeping measure once valued at $3.5 trillion. It could also open the door for Democrats to move a second proposal — a roughly $1.2 trillion bill to upgrade the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections — and send it to Biden’s desk as soon as this week.

The two initiatives together form the beating heart of Biden’s economic agenda, which Democrats see as critical for revitalizing a country still reeling from the pandemic while shoring up their political prospects in the fast-approaching 2022 election. Underscoring the stakes, the president delivered his public sales pitch for the two tranches of spending on Monday, with two events in New Jersey.

Democrats brace for cuts to paid leave program as they whittle down Biden economic package

Democrats on Oct. 24 said they are nearing a deal on President Biden's domestic policy package through compromise. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the morning, the president visited classrooms at East End Elementary School in North Plainfield as part of his push for universal prekindergarten. The White House said Biden’s spending initiative, known as Build Back Better, would enable the North Plainfield School District and others to expand free tuition to all 3-year-old children. It currently serves 4-year olds.

Biden then visited the NJ Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny, where he sounded his now-familiar, urgent call to make significant investments in the nation’s infrastructure as well as American jobs and families.

“These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency,” Biden said. “They’re about expanding opportunity, not opportunity denied.”

Where the White House economic plan stands: from taxes to climate to health to immigration

Democrats hope to shore up the spending ahead of Biden’s planned trip soon to Glasgow, Scotland, for what some experts see as the most significant summit on climate change in nearly a quarter century. Both of the president’s economic proposals contain new programs to combat emissions and promote cleaner energy, which the White House hopes to brandish on a global stage as it tries to encourage other countries to fight global warming more aggressively.

With the fate of his economic agenda hanging in the balance, Biden earlier in the day sounded another optimistic note, telling reporters as he boarded Air Force One that the talks over the weekend “went well.”

Asked whether he’ll have a deal before leaving the United States, he replied, “With the grace of God and the goodwill of the neighbors.”

Sinema’s silence on spending bill vexes many Democrats while she digs in on talks out of public view

The days ahead offer the opportunity for a major breakthrough for Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress, after party leaders confronted firsthand the tough political reality of governing with only a narrow majority in the House and Senate.

The stalemate centers on what Democrats initially hoped would be a $3.5 trillion package to expand Medicare coverage, combat climate change, introduce new paid leave and child care benefits, offer universal prekindergarten and overhaul the U. S. tax code. Manchin and Sinema have objected to core elements of that plan, forcing Democrats back to scale back their ambitions to secure their must-have votes. The battle has proved all encompassing, precluding House from adopting a second, separate set of infrastructure investments — a bipartisan plan that liberals have held hostage to maximize their political leverage in the ongoing talks.

Democrats appeared to reach early political breakthroughs last week, as they began to whittle down their package to a size that the two moderate holdouts could support. Biden personally presented a plan to lawmakers between $1.75 trillion and $1.9 trillion, though Democrats increasingly have come to believe they are likely to secure a number on the lower end of that range.

To bring that price tag down to size, the president’s early outline presented substantial policy trade-offs to party lawmakers. It put them on verge of securing new spending to offer universal prekindergarten, for example, but not free community college. It proposed to expand many federal safety net programs, but some of the proposals, including an extension of recently expanded tax credits for families with children, but only at lower amounts and for shorter periods of time than once envisioned.

Biden tells Democrats that package of up to $1.9 trillion should be new target of talks

Democrats also made significant progress in addressing long-simmering disputes over how to pay for the package. But Biden’s top aides signaled a willingness to concede one of this top priorities — a plan to raise rates on corporations and wealthy Americans, which would have unwound the tax cuts enacted under President Donald Trump in 2017. Instead, Biden began exploring other measures targeting the ultrawealthy, specifically to assuage Sinema, who opposes rate increases. She has labored alongside the likes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in recent days on what could be a new wealth tax on billionaires.

Speaking to reporters, Warren said they are having “productive conversations,” adding generally about the package: “I think we will find a way to get all 50 Democrats on board.”

Republicans, meanwhile, swiped anew at the idea. Taking to the chamber floor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) called it a “harebrained scheme” to try to tax billionaires’ assets based on their market value rather than when they are sold.

He warned that it could result in the Internal Revenue Service “penalizing people who’ve invested wisely and compensating people who’ve invested poorly — all independent of whether they have actually made or lost any money.”

Other policy battles remain unresolved, even after Biden huddled with Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) during a lengthy, meeting at his Delaware home on Sunday. That includes paid leave, as Manchin continues to fight its inclusion in the package, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks. Party lawmakers already have had to scale back their ambitions from 12 weeks of leave to 4 weeks, as they try to lower the overall cost of the bill, angering liberals who have vowed to expand the program.

Manchin on Monday declined to offer his specific concerns on paid leave.

Similarly in jeopardy are Democrats’ proposal to expand Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits, an idea chiefly championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Manchin also has fought this plan, leading to considerable haggling in recent days over whether Democrats might replace their attempts to offer new coverages with a voucher program that might help seniors offset their medical costs. Another long-held Democratic priority, empowering Medicare to negotiate lower drug costs, faces its own objections from a wide array of moderates in the House and Senate — along with a barrage of lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry.

In New Jersey, Biden eschewed the negotiations to focus on the policies he’s hoping to implement. Flanked by trains in the NJ Transit maintenance hub, the president found the local angle in his infrastructure pitch, emphasizing the recently launched $2 billion project to replace the Portal Bridge, which was built during the Taft administration and a cause of major train delays throughout the tri-state area.

“Now, it’s been called something different: a choke point, a bottleneck, an Achilles’ heel of the entire Northeast Corridor,” Biden said of the bridge at a ceremonial groundbreaking for its replacement.

Biden said that when the swing bridge malfunctions — which he said occurs about 15 percent of the time — workers often resort to using a sledgehammer to close it.

“Literally a sledgehammer to knock it back into place in the year 2021,” the president exclaimed.

He added: “Aging infrastructure like this is more than inconvenience or a nuisance — it’s an impediment. An impediment to America’s global competitiveness. We’re in a worldwide race.”

The trip also came just days away from the New Jersey gubernatorial election, where Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is running for reelection. Murphy joined Biden on both stops, and the president lauded his leadership but did not join the governor for a campaign stop.

“Gov. Murphy, so many of the national challenges we’re confronting are areas where you’re already leading,” he said. “Whether it’s making health care or preschool or college more affordable, providing paid family leave, replacing lead in pipes, and protecting public health — thanks for showing the way, pal.”

Pager reported from Kearny, N.J.