Democrats at odds over Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending bill

U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive order on reducing government bureaucracy at the White House in Washington
U.S. President Joe Biden smiles after signing an executive order intended to reduce bureaucracy around government services for the public.
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Democrats were struggling on Wednesday to find a path forward on President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion domestic investment bill, with moderate Joe Manchin objecting to parts of the program, a person familiar with their negotiations said.

Having averted a government shutdown and potential default this month, Senate Democrats hoped to pass the sweeping “Build Back Better” bill before Christmas. But the source said Biden and Manchin remain “far apart,” with Manchin objecting to an expanded child tax credit that other Democrats want in the program.

Manchin angrily denied that he was opposed to the child tax credit.

“I’ve always been for child tax credits. We voted for it many times,” he told reporters in the Capitol.

Asked if he supported maintaining the credit in its current form, Manchin erupted: “I’m not negotiating with any of you. This is bullsh**.”

He did not elaborate.

Earlier, Biden acknowledged it was not clear if the legislation could pass before the end of the year.

“It’s going to be close,” Biden said.

With no votes to spare in passing the “Build Back Better” initiative amid solid Republican opposition, Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer faces his biggest challenge since becoming majority leader in January. He is feeling the heat from all sides.

His top lieutenant, Senator Dick Durbin, has been clamoring for a showdown that would force Manchin to either fall into line and vote for the BBB bill or defy Biden in a way that could severely damage his presidency and Manchin’s own party.

“Many people will sit on the fence as long as possible. There comes a time when you’ve got to say,” Durbin said. “Put up or shut up.”

Some moderate Democratic senators saw no urgency in Schumer’s Christmas deadline but such flexibility infuriates liberals, who already swallowed a raft of compromises. They were promised quick action if they helped pass a separate, $1 trillion, bipartisan road and bridge-building infrastructure bill, which they did.

“The agreement from the beginning was that it was one deal,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading progressive, told reporters. “And yet we seem to be having trouble pulling the BBB part across the finish line.”

Schumer’s predicament is similar to what Democrats faced over a decade ago under former President Barack Obama. Without Republican support, they struggled to enact the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which promised to make health insurance affordable to millions of Americans.

It finally passed in an election year and became the landmark achievement of Obama’s presidency.

Some political observers think Biden can afford to wait until early next year, maybe into February, to secure a victory. After that, lawmakers’ attention will turn almost exclusively to the Nov. 8 congressional elections.

‘FAILURE TO DELIVER’

The interrelated issues of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic will be the top campaign issues, former Senate Democratic aide Jim Manley predicted. But he added: “For Democrats who want to run on a positive agenda, the failure to deliver here is going to be very damaging.”

A middle ground, he added, could see negotiators “continue to slim down the package under the belief the progressives will take whatever the Senate sends over.”

As the waning days of the 2021 session of Congress tick down, the Senate parliamentarian still must rule on whether a raft of provisions in Build Back Better, including a major reform of immigration policy, adhere to Senate rules.

The task appeared daunting this week. A single committee chairman said was working through more than 20 issues with the parliamentarian, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that Republicans still expect the official to preside over bipartisan arguments about the bill’s provisions.

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