Biden’s push for Senate passage of his spending bill marks a career-defining moment
By Seung Min Kim,
The triumphant passage by House Democrats Friday of President Biden’s chief domestic priority — a sweeping $2 trillion package that invests heavily in health care, the social safety net and climate — now sets up the ultimate test of his legislative acumen as Biden navigates a Senate with no room for error.
For the president, who has long touted his intimate knowledge of Capitol Hill and ability to negotiate complex congressional deals, failure to shepherd the “Build Back Better” package into law would be a devastating blow, handing his opponents a political cudgel while falling short of his promise to pass transformational legislation.
But its successful passage — combined with the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law that Biden heralded this week and an earlier coronavirus relief package — would cap a historic set of domestic policy achievements for Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress despite a narrowly divided and highly polarized environment.
Biden’s top aides are signaling that president is prepared to scale back the party’s ambition further to accommodate the handful of moderate Democrats in the Senate who are reluctant to embrace the most expansive components of the package.
“The president would have loved to have seen his entire original proposal pass, but he also knows from having served 36 years in the Senate, that’s not how it goes,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday. “He’s someone who governs from the position of compromise not being a dirty word.”
The package already has shrunk from an initial target of $6 trillion to its current size of roughly $2 trillion in the interest of political viability. Biden “sees consensus as the way you get things done, and that’s certainly how we’re going to approach the next few weeks as well,” Psaki said
In a preview of Biden’s likely message — both to senators and voters he hopes will support the package — the president issued a statement Friday citing benefits such as lower prescription drug costs, universal pre-K, an extended child tax credit, senior care and a sizable climate package. Biden has also promoted the social spending bill while touring the country to promote his freshly-signed infrastructure law.
“This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America, and it leaves no one behind,” Biden said of the new infrastructure law at a General Motors plant in Michigan this week. Pivoting immediately to the pending package, Biden said: “The same goes for my Build Back Better plan; it’s for our people.”
But the infrastructure package was a bipartisan effort, supported by 19 Senate Republicans and 13 House Republicans in addition to almost all Democrats. In contrast, Build Back Better is not expected to attract any Republican support, so every single Senate Democrat must sign on for it to pass, giving centrists, including Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), enormous bargaining power.
There are plenty of challenges confronting Biden in the Senate. The House package includes four weeks of paid family and medical leave, a measure Manchin opposes. Immigration provisions cleared by House Democrats may not survive procedurally in the Senate, where the bill must follow strict parliamentary guidelines.
The House bill also significantly raises the cap on state and local tax deductions, a move designed to pick up the votes of Democrats representing high-tax districts but likely to be adjusted in the Senate.
Even in the ebullient aftermath of the House passage of the Build Back Better Act — teeing off a Biden campaign slogan that he has since replicated for his domestic and foreign policy agendas — Democratic lawmakers acknowledged that the $2 trillion measure was likely to be changed in the Senate.
The bill’s fortune in coming weeks — Democrats hope for final passage by Christmas — could determine the scope of Biden’s legacy. Most members of both parties believe Democrats will lose their majority next year in the House and possibly the Senate as well, and it could be years before the party again controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.
What’s less clear is whether passage of the bill would boost Biden’s low approval ratings. The story of Biden’s tenure so far has been accomplishments — a coronavirus vaccine drive, a covid-19 pandemic relief law, an infrastructure package, a pullout from Afghanistan — that are often messy and do little to strengthen his political standing.
Yet many Democrats believe that failing to pass Biden’s agenda would likely deal a severe political blow to the party. That’s created a dynamic where centrists repeatedly downsize liberals’ spending wishes and blunt efforts to hike taxes on wealthy corporations.
“We’re going to have work to do when the bill comes back from the Senate,” said Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.). But helping the party, Neguse said, was that the vast majority of the legislation already has been negotiated with Democrats on the other end of the Capitol.
Still, some Democrats say privately that one likely scenario is Senate leaders embracing whatever version of the bill is palatable to Sinema and Manchin and the House largely accepting the result. That would deeply disappoint liberals, but they may have few other options.
Aside from one overarching red line — that the legislation should not raise taxes for those making than less than $400,000 annually — Biden has rarely imposed his views on Manchin and Sinema, stubborn negotiators who often have been at odds with the rest of the party.
At one point, Sinema said she would not support an increase in corporate tax rates that had been cut significantly by Republicans in 2017. Though it was a position held by virtually everyone across the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill, Biden acknowledged that once Sinema made her opposition clear, there was little choice but to drop the provision.
“Look, when you’re in the United States Senate and you’re president of the United States and you have 50 Democrats, every one is a president,” Biden remarked at a CNN town hall in Baltimore last month. “So you’ve got to work things out.”
In an interview with The Washington Post this week, Sinema said it was not Biden’s approach to push her into a specific position, saying “no one tells me what to do” and that if the administration tried, “it would not be effective.”
In negotiations, Sinema is “of the mind that you should be very frank, very honest, very upfront,” the senator said in the interview. “My experience is that the White House negotiators and the president himself, you know, appreciate and respect that.”
More vocal with his objections has been Manchin, who has opposed a paid leave program and a tax credit to encourage purchases of electric vehicles, beyond his objection to the overall size of the bill.
Psaki stressed Friday that administration officials continued to stay in touch with Manchin and his aides, signaling that the Biden would engage directly with senators once the timing was right.
“We believe that he is operating and negotiating in good faith,” Psaki said of Manchin. White House officials have said the same about Sinema, despite the criticisms both have faced from Democratic colleagues on policy and tactics as the package has taken shape over the last several months.
Asked whether he would sign the bill into law even if paid family leave provisions were dropped — as Manchin has telegraphed he would demand — Biden said Friday: “I will sign it. Period.”
As the legislation now winds through the Senate, Democrats will also have to contend with liberals already frustrated that the package has shrunk from its initial size. In a statement Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Congress “must” expand Medicare coverage to cover dental, vision and hearing assistance, although the House bill only included hearing benefits.
“As this moves to the Senate and the Senate looks at the bill,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said, “if they want to mess with it at all, I hope what they remember is that anything you move out of this bill, you are saying, you’re preventing lifesaving change for people.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.