Congressional Democrats are pushing back the timeline to pass President Biden’s $3.5 trillion expansion of the social safety net, shifting strategy in response to intransigence from the key moderate swing votes.
Senate Democrats left Washington on Wednesday for the Yom Kippur holiday without a finalized draft of the legislation. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, set a Wednesday deadline for the bill to be complete but that proved impossible to meet.
Moderate Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have refused to back the immense size and scope of the package. Mr. Manchin, who as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee is tasked with writing a portion of the bill, has repeatedly called for trimming it to roughly $1.5 trillion.
“I’ve been very clear and very open about this, it shouldn’t be a surprise,” he said.
Similarly, Ms. Sinema said she is unwilling to vote for the measure as long as the price tag remains at $3.5 trillion.
The lawmakers’ intransigence forced Mr. Biden to intervene. The president privately hosted Ms. Sinema and Mr. Manchina at the White House on Wednesday. Mr. Biden reportedly lobbied both back the bill, which is the cornerstone of his domestic agenda.
Mr. Biden’s lobbying effort did not appears to pay off. After the meeting, Ms. Sinema’s staff said the conversation “was productive, and Kyrsten is continuing to work in good faith with her colleagues and President Biden as this legislation develops.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki echoed the sentiment, telling reporters that no definitive agreement had been reached.
“The president certainly believes there will be ongoing discussions,” she said. “Not that there’s necessarily going to be a conclusion out of those today, but that was the primary focus and purpose of these meetings.”
Democrats are pitching the spending bill to voters as “human infrastructure.” They say the package complements the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that focuses on roads, bridges, railway and airport projects.
The Senate passed the infrastructure bill last month. The bigger bill amounts to a wish list of liberal priorities such as proposals for climate change, amnesty for illegal immigrants, tuition-free community college and expanded health care programs.
Given Republicans’ solid opposition, Democrats plan to pass the $3.5 trillion package via a special process known as budget reconciliation. It allows some spending and tax measures to avoid the Senate‘s 60-vote filibuster threshold and pass with a simple majority of 51 votes.
Since the Senate is evenly split between both parties, any single lawmaker can exert significant influence over its crafting.
That fact has Democrats privately admitting that reconciliation negotiations are likely to extend well into October.
Originally, Mr. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, had hoped to have the spending package done before Congress has to take up the budget and various appropriations bills.
Congress also must pass a government funding bill by Sept. 30 to keep the government open. Congress also faces a mid-October deadline to raise the debt ceiling or else risk default.
“The democratic leader has every tool and procedure they need to handle the debt limit on a partisan basis,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “Just like they’re choosing to handle everything else.”
The situation has Democrats fretting that if the reconciliation package is not finished soon, the party will have to compromise or trade it away to keep the government afloat.
“We’ve seen this play out time and again,” said an aide to Democratic leadership. “Republicans weaponize the budget or the debt ceiling to extract concessions. Now they’re doing it in hopes of killing the most progressive spending package since the New Deal.”
Given such concerns, party leaders are eager to end the standoff with moderates like Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema. It remains to be seen just how long that will take.
At the White House, Ms. Psaki said that Democrats had at least until early November to act on reconciliation. That month, Mr. Biden is set to attend the United Nations Climate Summit in Scotland.
“The summit is not for two months, so we have a bit of time,” said Ms. Psaki. “And obviously, we certainly expect that it will move forward in advance of that … There are steps we can take outside of these legislative pieces, but certainly moving these legislative pieces forward will be significant.”