WASHINGTON (AP) — Determined not to let his $3.5 trillion government overhaul collapse, President Joe Biden cleared his schedule late Thursday and Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed the House into an evening session as the Democratic leaders worked to negotiate a scaled-back plan centrist holdouts would accept.
At immediate risk was a promised vote, still possible late Thursday night, on the first piece of Biden’s proposal, a slimmer $1 trillion public works bill that is widely supported but has faltered amid stalled talks on his more ambitious package. Progressives are refusing to back the roads-and-bridges bill they view as insufficient unless there’s progress on Biden’s broader plan that’s the heart of the Democratic agenda. In the narrowly held House, Pelosi has few votes to spare.
Democrats are deeply at odds, and are at risk of an embarrassing setback — if not collapse of the whole enterprise — if they cannot resolve the standoff over Biden’s big vision. After days of talks, those differences only deepened when Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced he was willing to go not quite half as high as the president wants — $1.5 trillion — toward the president’s broader package.
With Biden working the phones and top White House officials arriving at Pelosi’s office, they were trying to ease off the stalemate and salvage the president’s vision. The idea is to reach agreement on the contours of Biden’s broader package, proceed with the $1 trillion public works bill and negotiate the rest of Biden’s big health care, education and climate change bill in the days to come. Lawmakers were told to stick around for possible late-night votes.
All this on a day that saw a partial win for Democrats, with Congress passing and Biden signing legislation to keep the government running past Thursday’s fiscal yearend deadline and avert a federal shutdown that had been threatened by Republican blockades.
“Step by step,” Pelosi said at the Capitol, suggesting a deal was within reach.
“This is the path — it’s not a fork in the road,” she said.
As Biden and his party reach for a giant legislative accomplishment — promising a vast rewrite of the nation’s tax and spending plans with a slim majority in Congress — the political stakes could hardly be higher. Biden’s sweeping proposal would essentially raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy and plow that money back into government health care, education and other programs, all of it touching the lives of countless Americans.
At the White House, Press Secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged the process looked messy from the outside, the “sausage-making” of Capitol Hill. But she signaled progress was being made.
The public works bill is one piece of that broader Biden vision, a $1 trillion investment in routine transportation, broadband, water systems and other projects bolstered with extra funding. It won bipartisan support in the Senate but has now become snared by the broader debate.
Attention remains squarely focused on Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, centrist Democrats who helped steer that bipartisan bill to passage, but have concerns that Biden’s overall bill is too big. They have infuriated colleagues by not making any counter-proposals public.
Under scrutiny, Manchin called an impromptu press conference Thursday outside the Capitol, insisting he has been clear from the start.
“I’m willing to sit down and work on the $1.5,” Manchin told reporters, as protesters seeking a bigger package and Biden’s priorities chanted behind him.
Manchin said he told the president as much during their talks this week, and confirmed that he put his views to paper during earlier talks this summer with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
It’s not just Manchin’s demands to reduce the overall size, but the conditions he wants placed on new spending that will rile his more liberal colleagues as he works to ensure the aid goes only to lower-income people, rather than broader swaths of Americans. Tensions spiked late Wednesday when Manchin sent out a fiery statement, decrying the broad spending as “fiscal insanity.”
Sinema was similarly working to stave off criticism and her office said claims that she has not been forthcoming are “false” — though she has not publicly disclosed her views over what size package she wants and has declined to answer questions about her position.
Sinema has put dollar figures on the table and “continues to engage directly in good-faith discussions” with both Biden and Schumer, spokesman John LaBombard said in a statement.
The centrist senators’ refusal to close negotiations with Biden enraged progressive lawmakers and almost ensured they would tank the bipartisan public works bill if there was no end in sight to the White House talks.
Democrats’ campaign promises on the line, the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, said exiting Pelosi’s office that the progressives’ views were unchanged ― they won’t vote for one bill without the other and would stay all weekend to get a deal.
“Inaction is insanity,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., another progressive leader, pointing her criticism clear at Manchin’s remarks.
“Trying to kill your party’s agenda is insanity. Not trying to make sure the president we all worked so hard to elect, his agenda pass, is insanity.”
In a deepening party split, centrists warned off canceling Thursday’s vote as a “breach of trust that would slow the momentum in moving forward in delivering the Biden agenda,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a leader of the centrist Blue Dog Democrats.
At the same time, Congress mostly resolved a more immediate crisis that arose after Republicans refused to approve legislation to keep the government funded past Thursday’s fiscal yearend and raise the nation’s debt limit to avoid a dangerous default on borrowing.
The Senate voted Thursday to provide government funding to avoid a federal shutdown, keeping operations going temporarily to Dec. 3. The House quickly followed, and Biden signed the bill Thursday evening.
The debt ceiling debate shifts to October, ahead of another deadline when the Treasury Department has warned money would run out to pay past bills.
With Republicans opposed in lockstep to the president’s big plan, deriding it as slide to socialist-style spending, Biden is reaching for a deal with members of his own party for a signature legislative accomplishment.
Together, Sens. Manchin and Sinema hold the keys to unlocking the stalemate over Biden’s sweeping vision, the heart of his 2020 campaign pledges, but they part ways on specifics, according to a person familiar with the private talks and granted anonymity to discuss them.
Manchin appears to have fewer questions about the revenue side of the equation — the higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy — than the spending plans and particular policies, especially those related to climate change that are important to his coal-centric state.
Sinema focuses her questions on the menu of tax options, including the increased corporate rate that some in the business community argue could make the U.S. less competitive overseas and the individual rate that others warn could snare small business owners.
Biden insists the price tag actually will be zero because the expansion of government programs would be largely paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy — businesses earning more than $5 million a year, and individuals earning more than $400,000 a year, or $450,000 for couples.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Brian Slodysko and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.
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