Democrats on Thursday began to concede that they may not be able to adopt a roughly $2 trillion package to overhaul the country’s health care, education, climate, immigration and tax laws before the end of this year, threatening a major political setback for the final piece of President Biden’s economic agenda.
The acknowledgment on Capitol Hill after months of negotiations — some even involving Biden personally — generated fresh frustration among a party struggling to overcome its own divisions and finalize a measure that has bedeviled them now for nearly a year. And it raised the odds that a key federal program that provides monthly payments to approximately 35 million families could expire in a matter of days.
Biden, however, sought to manage expectations late Thursday. In a statement, he said discussions remain ongoing with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a key swing vote in the chamber who has expressed sustained concern about the size and scope of the economic package. But he appeared to leave open the door that the debate could easily drag into 2022.
“We will advance this work together over the days and weeks ahead,” Biden said, noting that he and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are “determined to see the bill successfully on the floor as early as possible.”
For Democrats, the challenges they faced Thursday just days before their self-imposed holiday deadline appeared immense: Despite considerable legislative legwork, they continued to tinker with a slew of spending proposals related to climate, health care and taxes. They faced a major setback over their attempts to reform immigration. And some admitted they had not yet completed the lengthy, intricate process that would allow them to bring the bill, known as the Build Back Better Act, to the chamber floor in a manner that could skirt Republican opposition.
But the most formidable breakdown hinged on a now-familiar dispute: whether Democrats should seize on their rare, narrow and potent majorities afforded them in Congress to pursue aggressive, expensive economic reforms, or reel in their ambitions to assuage Manchin’s fiscal conservatism.
Throughout the debate, the centrist holdout has wielded almost unrivaled power to shape his party’s agenda, since Democrats in the Senate cannot adopt their package — no matter its size — without his supportive vote. When Senate leaders sought to speed up their efforts entering this week, Manchin appeared to double down in his criticism.
Days of private talks between Manchin and Biden ultimately produced no truce, illustrating instead the widening gap between the moderate lawmaker and many in his party. With so much in limbo, some Democrats appeared newly resigned on Thursday to the growing prospects of another delay, perhaps into next year, in a debate that has already experienced no shortage of them.
Speaking to reporters Thursday morning, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) appeared to channel the feelings of his caucus when he described his mood as “frustrated and disappointed.”
“We missed an opportunity,” he added, “but I’m not giving up.”
The December debacle marked only the newest political hurdle for Democrats since they embarked this spring on a broader effort to transform Biden’s economic vision to reality. In shepherding to passage a bipartisan infrastructure law — and faltering so far on the remainder of the president’s plans — the long legislative slog has forced Democrats to confront the limits of their narrow voting margins and tested the president’s acumen as a veteran Senate dealmaker.
Republicans throughout the year have balked at Biden’s spending plans, decrying the approximately $2 trillion endeavor as wasteful and socialist at a time of rapid inflation. The possibility that Democrats might have to punt their signature initiative into 2022 drew supportive jeers earlier Thursday from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who took to the chamber floor to slam his political foes.
“The best Christmas gift Washington could give working families would be putting this bad bill on ice,” he said.
Hours after McConnell spoke, Democrats filed into a private lunch at the Capitol — bracing for what might be one final, behind-the-scenes reckoning over their failure to adopt the $2 trillion measure before Christmas, a self-imposed deadline aired repeatedly by Schumer on the chamber floor.
Many Democrats declined to talk as they entered the roughly hour-long lunch. Manchin, for his part, departed early — telling reporters gathered outside he had nothing to say about the discussions. Others later left exhibiting a degree of uncertainty about the road ahead, hoping that they might be able to salvage the spending bill for one final end-of-the-year push.
“I don’t think it’s going to be before Christmas, but it shouldn’t be — it should be when we’re ready,” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) told reporters, adding he thought it might be “one of the first things after the holiday.”
In the meantime, some Democrats began discussing a potential shift in their strategy, believing they might be nearing a breakthrough on another long-stalled priority — reforming the nation’s elections and voting laws — even while their economic plans remain stuck.
“I have voting rights on the brain,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), one of the leading negotiators.
Racing past reporters, Schumer declined to address the timing of either bill, saying only in a brief aside that Democrats had a “very good discussion.”
In its current form, the Build Back Better Act aims to expand Medicare to cover hearing benefits, authorize new universal prekindergarten and other child-care aid, invest billions of dollars to combat climate change and bolster federal safety-net programs that assist low-income Americans. Democrats planned to finance the bill largely through changes to tax laws that target millionaires, as well as companies that pay nothing annually to the federal government.
Despite its sprawling nature, the package marks a stark departure from some Democrats’ original vision. Lawmakers including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the leader of the chamber’s budget panel, initially had hoped to spend three times as much on a more ambitious roster of programs. But the party’s cuts have not satisfied Manchin, without whom Democrats cannot invoke special Senate rules to adopt the bill in the narrowly divided chamber.
When Biden unveiled a proposal in October that essentially halved the size of the original Build Back Better Act, setting its price tag at $1.75 trillion, the moderate senator did not endorse it. Days later, he blasted it for “shell games.”
House Democrats later expanded that bill even more, incorporating a plan to provide millions of Americans with paid leave benefits that Manchin previously had opposed. But their political push — a bid to pressure the holdout senator into caving — only further invoked his ire.
And Democrats only further ran into trouble because they tried to cut back the Build Back Better Act by slimming down the life span of the wide array of programs that they sought to authorize. Manchin saw that as gimmicky, demanding instead that the bill fund every element over 10 years while still keeping its total cost under $1.75 trillion — an impossibility given the party’s sweeping agenda.
On Thursday, Biden acknowledged the myriad issues Manchin has raised in public — and during their private talks. He said the senator had “reiterated his support for Build Back Better funding at the level of the framework plan I announced in September,” referring to its earlier $1.75 trillion price tag. In the process, the president also conceded the long legislative road ahead, as Democrats work to resolve other policy issues and bring the bill to the floor.
“It takes time to finalize these agreements, prepare the legislative changes, and finish all the parliamentary and procedural steps needed to enable a Senate vote,” Biden said.
Among the challenges Democrats faced anew Thursday is the future of their proposal to reform the immigration system. The plan could deliver work permits to millions, allowing them to receive benefits and travel back to their home countries. But it would not pave a pathway to citizenship for many groups of undocumented immigrants believed to contribute to the U.S. economy, the ultimate goal for those seeking reforms.
The Senate’s parliamentarian nonetheless ruled that the proposal did not meet the narrow criteria required for lawmakers to move the bill in the chamber under the process known as reconciliation, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the deliberations. The legislative tactic allows Democrats to advance their roughly $2 trillion plan without risk of a GOP filibuster, but only if each element of their bill directly implicates the federal budget.
But Democrats stressed they did not plan to give up the fight, signaling they could next try to win the parliamentarian’s support on securing citizenship for immigrants.
“We strongly disagree with the Senate parliamentarian’s interpretation of our immigration proposal, and we will pursue every means to achieve a path to citizenship in the Build Back Better Act,” said a group of lawmakers including Schumer, Durbin and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.).
In the meantime, other Democrats feared the new setbacks ultimately could harm some of the very families they seek to help.
Many in the party saw the broader Build Back Better Act as the best vehicle to extend a soon-expiring program that provides early tax payments to families with children. Under the proposal, Democrats would have extended those payments only for a year, scaling back their original plans to make the program permanent in a way that many lawmakers thought Manchin had supported.
But the delays they face — as they wrangled anew with the senator over a wide array of economic issues — meant millions of families may have seen their final payments on Wednesday. Democrats including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the leader of the Senate Finance Committee, said that they haven’t given up on trying to prevent the program from expiring in a matter of days. But Democrats on Capitol Hill, and top officials at the White House, acknowledged that a stand-alone effort to extend the child-tax credit is likely to face potentially insurmountable political hurdles as the year draws to a close.
“Fifty Republicans are against this,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio.). Asked if Democrats could adopt the extension on its own, he replied, “We’re going to keep it together, and it’s going to help drive the whole bill.”