Big, messy, complicated: Biden's plan churns in Congress

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Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., left, speaks with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON – It’s big. It’s messy. And it’s very politically complicated. That's President Joe Biden’s sweeping domestic policy package as Democratic leaders in Congress try to muscle it into law.

Fallout was brutal Friday after Biden’s announcement of a $1.75 trillion framework, chiseled back from an initial $3.5 trillion plan, still failed to produce ironclad support from two key holdout senators — West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizonan Kyrsten Sinema. On Capitol Hill, Congress adjourned the night before with fingers pointed, tempers hot and so much at stake for the president and his party.

Yet a formal nod of endorsement of Biden's plan from the party’s Congressional Progressive Caucus late Thursday moved the president one step closer to the support needed for passage in the House. Determined to wrap it up, the House will try next week to pass Biden's big bill, along with a companion $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.

“It’s only 90% done,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “So you got to get through the complicated — the last 10%, as you know, is always the most difficult.”

The fast-moving — then slow-crawling — state-of-play in Congress puts the president and his party at significant political risk.

Biden’s slipping approval rating and the party’s own hold on Congress are at stake with the 2022 midterm election campaigns soon underway. Democrats are struggling in governor's races next week in Virginia and New Jersey, where safe victories might have been expected.

"It’s sort of stunning to me that we’re in this place,” exasperated Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., told reporters late Thursday as the House adjourned.

Biden arrived that morning on Capitol Hill triumphant in announcing a historic framework on the bill that he claimed would get 50 votes in the Senate. But the two Democratic Senate holdouts Manchin and Sinema responded — maybe, maybe not.

Manchin and Sinema's reluctance to fully embrace Biden's plan set off a domino series of events that sent Biden to overseas summits empty handed and left the party portrayed as in disarray.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to abandon plans to pass the related measure, the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan, that has become tangled in the deliberations. Progressives have been refusing to vote for that public works package of roads, bridges and broadband, withholding their support as leverage for assurances that Manchin and Sinema are on board with Biden’s big bill.

"Everyone is very clear that the biggest problem we have here is Manchin and Sinema,” Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona told reporters. “We don’t trust them. We need to hear from them that they’re actually in agreement with the president’s framework.”

Still, step by step, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are edging their caucuses closer to resolving their differences over what would be the most ambitious federal investments in social services in generations and some $555 billion in climate change strategies.

“We will vote both bills through,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the progressive caucus, after endorsing Biden's plan.

Lawmakers are expected to spend the weekend negotiating final details on text that’s swelling beyond 1,600 pages. Some are trying to restore a paid family leave program or lower prescription drug costs that fell out of Biden's framework.

Manchin and Sinema, the two holdouts, now hold enormous power, essentially deciding whether Biden will be able to deliver on the Democrats’ major campaign promises.

Both have privately indicated that they are on board, according to Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a Biden ally.

“I have new optimism,” tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who was part of a small entourage that met privately with Sinema at the Capitol.

“Same,” responded Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., who served as a bridge between progressives and the Arizona senator.

But it won’t be easy, if past congressional battles are any measure. Legislating is work that takes time and rarely happens on schedule.

Democrats took the full first year of Barack Obama’s presidency to pass the Affordable Care Act in a Senate vote on Christmas Eve 2009 — and that was only part of the way. It wasn't signed into law until March 2010.

Republicans tried and failed to repeal the same health care law during Donald Trump’s first year in a stunning midnight flop in 2017.

Biden's package is even more sweeping than those.

“Let’s get this done,” he exhorted in an address at the White House on Thursday. He claimed the package "will fundamentally change the lives of millions of people for the better.”

While much has been cut from Biden's sweeping vision, still in the mix is a long list of priorities: free prekindergarten for all youngsters, expanded health care programs — including the launch of a new $35 billion hearing aid benefit for people with Medicare — and $555 billion to tackle climate change.

There's also a one-year extension of an enhanced child care tax credit that was put in place during the COVID-19 rescue and new child care subsidies.

Other expanded health care programs build on the Affordable Care Act by funding subsidies to help people buy insurance policies and providing coverage in states that declined Obamacare's Medicaid expansion.

An additional $100 billion to bolster the immigration system could boost the overall package to $1.85 trillion if it clears Senate rules.

Republicans remain overwhelmingly opposed, forcing Biden to rely on the Democrats' narrow majority in Congress with no votes to spare in the Senate and few in the House.

Biden’s proposal would be paid for by imposing a new 5% surtax on income over $10 million a year and an additional 3% on those over $25 million and by instituting a new 15% corporate minimum tax, keeping with his plans to have no new taxes on those earning less than $400,000 a year. A special billionaires' tax was not included.

Revenue to help pay for the package would also come from rolling back some of the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts and stepping up pursuit of tax dodgers by the IRS. Biden has vowed to cover the entire cost of the plan, ensuring it does not pile onto the nation's debt load.

Just in case they can't wrap it up soon, Democrats gave themselves a new deadline — approving an extension until Dec. 3 of routine transportation funds that will be at risk of expiring without the infrastructure bill.

"The current situation is about as bad as it can get,” said Jim Manley, a former top Senate aide.

The progressives' endorsement was progress for Biden, he said. But with trust low, he also said, "I am afraid that it is going to take a while.”


Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.