Biden pushes progressive and centrist Democrats closer to a deal on Build Back Better bill

Key Points
  • President Joe Biden huddled with members of the two warring factions of Democratic lawmakers Tuesday, in a bid to salvage his sprawling economic agenda.
  • By late Tuesday, there were some signs of progress towards a compromise between progressive and moderate Democrats.
  • The talks came as Democrats struggled to bridge deep divisions within their caucus over a massive bill to invest in the social safety net and climate policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden responds to questions in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, September 24, 2021.
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden huddled with members of the two warring factions of Democratic lawmakers Tuesday in a bid to salvage his sprawling economic agenda.

By late Tuesday, there were early signs of progress towards a compromise.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the talks "constructive" in a statement on Tuesday evening.

"The president is more confident this evening about the path forward," Psaki said. She noted that the discussions "focused around a shared commitment to the care economy, ensuring working families have more breathing room, addressing the climate crisis, and investing in industries of the future."

While these four topics may sound like political speak, they hint at the specific proposals that Democrats are coalescing around, and just as importantly, which ones are likely to be left on the table.

For example, "the care economy" means childcare subsidies, universal preschool and in-home eldercare. It does not mean free community college, which was initially part of Biden's agenda but which NBC News reported Tuesday is likely to be dropped from a final deal.

Giving working families "more breathing room" means federal paid parental leave and expanded Child Tax Credits. It does not mean allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies, however: Another proposal that could be set aside in order to win consensus among a fractured caucus.

Lastly, "addressing the climate crisis and investing in industries of the future" means funding new, clean, sources of renewable energy. What it does not mean is imposing fines on existing coal and gas fired power plants that do not meet government-set clean energy targets.

Tuesday's discussions at the White House came as Democrats struggled to bridge deep divisions within their caucus over a massive bill to invest in the social safety net and climate policy, both core pieces of Biden's domestic agenda.

The outcome of this week's talks could determine not only whether the social safety net proposal gets through Congress, but also whether its companion legislation, a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate, garners a majority in the House.

Biden's first meeting Tuesday morning was with Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate West Virginia Democrat and a key vote who can sink or save Biden's domestic policy plan in the 50-50 split Senate.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) walks to a vote in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol as negotiations over passing infrastructure legislation continue in Washington, U.S., October 20, 2021.
Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters

Biden also met in the morning with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Like Manchin, Sinema is a moderate Democrat who has far refused to embrace the social safety net bill that makes up one half of Biden's two-part domestic policy plan.

Later in the day, the president, Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen met with House progressives first, and later with House and Senate centrists.

Progressives invited for a meeting that began at 2 p.m. ET included Reps. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Ritchie Torres of New York and Jimmy Gomez, Jared Huffman, Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee, all of California.

Following that meeting, Jayapal told reporters outside the White House that it was a "really good, productive meeting," but she did not say whether any concrete decisions had been made.

A later meeting at 4:30 p.m. ET was attended by Sens. Catherine Cortez-Masto of Nevada, Jon Tester of Montana and Virginia's Mark Warner. They were joined by California Reps. Ami Bera and Mike Thompson, Washington Rep. Suzan DelBene, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Tom O'Halleran of Arizona.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have said they want to pass both plans before the end of October. But with just 7 congressional working days left in the month, that deadline appears all but impossible to meet.

As of Tuesday, Democrats had not agreed on an overall price tag for their social spending plan, let alone written the specific legislation.

Biden initially proposed a $3.5 trillion "human infrastructure" plan that would have included new child care subsidies, Medicare expansions, an increased Child Tax Credit, universal pre-K and two years of free community college, as well as broad investments in green energy.

But Biden's plans have encountered stiff opposition from Sinema and Manchin, although for different reasons.

Manchin says he will not vote for more than $1.5 trillion in spending, a stance that puts him at odds with House progressives, who wanted to spend more than $3.5 trillion on the plan.

He has also signaled his opposition to a clean electricity standard that is at the heart of Biden's green energy plan, and he has called for means testing several of the family benefit programs.

Sinema, meanwhile, has also objected to the top-line price tag of the bill. Yet Sinema's specific concerns differ somewhat from Manchin's.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., arrives for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee markup in Dirksen Building on Wednesday, October 6, 2021.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Sinema has criticized some of the corporate tax hikes that Democrats say are crucial to paying for programs like family leave and universal preschool without ballooning the national debt.

She also opposes a key provision that would permit Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, a change that could sharply lower the cost of prescription drugs and save the government billions of dollars annually.

As Democrats struggle to bring down the overall cost of the domestic spending bill, they must hash out which programs must be cut entirely, which can be trimmed, and which should remain unaltered in final legislation.

The outcome of these negotiations will determine whether millions of Americans see a boost in federal benefits in the coming years.

They will also shape the long-term scope of the federal response to climate change, which has contributed to a wave of devastating fires and storms in the U.S. this year.

U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), with Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), leads a group of Democratic members of Congress out of the West Wing to speak to reporters after meeting with President Joe Biden about infrastructure legislation at the White House in Washington, October 19, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Manchin met separately on Monday with Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and with Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, the unofficial leader of a progressive bloc of Democratic senators.

West Virginia is one of the nation's top producers of coal and natural gas, which helps to explain Manchin's opposition to programs designed to cut back on fossil fuel dependence.

But he is also heavily invested in the coal industry himself. Manchin's largest single source of income in 2020 was a coal consulting business he founded, which is now run by his son.

— This story was updated with the latest developments on the talks between Biden and lawmakers.

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