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Democrats agonize over how to cut big spending plan

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 10/15/2021 Susan Ferrechio
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Ditch expanded Medicare benefits or paid medical leave? Preserve child tax credits or universal preschool?

Democrats are mulling unpopular options as they struggle to trim their massive social welfare spending package to fit a suddenly much lower price tag.

“We have to make some difficult decisions, of course, because we have fewer resources,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters this week.

President Joe Biden last month dropped a bomb on the primarily liberal House Democratic Caucus: Forget the $3.5 trillion spending bill it hoped would fund a broad array of new government programs and instead aim for a narrower package that spends around $2 trillion to reach a compromise that can win the support of centrist holdouts in the Senate.

Biden’s new price tag has set off a mad scramble among lawmakers and advocates to preserve policies and spending provisions they believe should not end up on the cutting room floor.

“We can't negotiate the reconciliation bill down to nothing,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat and leading House progressive, complained on Tuesday.

Ocasio-Cortez and a group of fellow New York lawmakers fired off a letter to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, demanding they maintain roughly $200 billion in funding for immigration, affordable housing, and transportation in low-income areas.

“The Build Back Better package is a once in a generation opportunity to build a sustainable and prosperous future for our country,” the group wrote. “Affordable housing, quality, sustainable and accessible public transportation and sound immigration reform must remain priorities in the debate.”

Other leading progressives are taking a tougher approach with Democrats who are taking a scalpel to the plan.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and a socialist, told reporters this week he will not accept leaders slashing his plan to expand Medicare benefits to include dental, vision, and hearing services.

“To me, this is not negotiable,” Sanders said. “This is what the American people want.”

The party’s slim margin in both chambers means lawmakers must nearly all agree to support the bill for it to pass.

In the evenly split Senate, not a single Democrat can defect if the party hopes to pass the bill with the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Democrats are forced to trim back the $3.5 trillion package because centrist Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia say it’s too costly. Manchin is insisting on a cap of $1.5 trillion, and both lawmakers want other policy changes in the measure.

Far-left Democrats, who significantly outnumber centrists in the House and the Senate, are pushing back hard against efforts to pare back programs.

The House Progressive Caucus, whose members make up nearly half of the House Democratic Caucus, is urging leaders to use a budgetary tactic to reduce the cost.

“If given a choice between legislating narrowly or broadly, we strongly encourage you to choose the latter and make robust investments over a shorter window,” Progressive Caucus members wrote to Pelosi on Wednesday. “Tax expenditures should also be treated the same way as direct investments. This will help make the case for our party’s ability to govern, and establish a track record of success that will pave the way for a long-term extension of benefits.”

Progressive Democrats are also battling centrists over policy changes.

In addition to seeking a less costly bill, Manchin opposes including green energy provisions to end fossil fuels, while Sinema is seeking changes to language that would allow the federal government to negotiate Medicare drug costs.

In a letter sent to Biden this week, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva urged him to ensure “essential climate investments” remain in the bill, including “meaningful steps to get the United States taxpayer out of the fossil fuel business.”

Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wants to preserve tax breaks for fossil fuels, including natural gas and coal. And Manchin wants his committee to author any clean energy language that ends up in the bill.

Sinema has remained largely silent about her opposition to the measure but has signaled she does not back negotiated Medicare drug prices, which critics say will hurt pharmaceutical innovation and limit lifesaving drug availability.

Priorities USA, a liberal political action group, said its polling shows Democrats should include language in the bill to expand Medicare benefits and lower drug prices or risk alienating voters.

“When it comes to critical issues that Democrats should pass and run on in the 2022 midterm elections, there is nothing more obvious than lowering drug prices and expanding Medicare,” Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil said. “If a tiny fraction of the Democratic majority is able to tank a key priority, Democrats may not get another chance to make real progress on this issue.”

 

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Original Author: Susan Ferrechio

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