WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden hailed a nascent Democratic package of climate, health care and tax initiatives as “a giant step forward” for the country Thursday as congressional leaders began nailing down votes for a campaign-season bill they've cast as a boon for voters struggling with inflation.
A day after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and conservative Sen. Joe Manchin stunned Washington by resurrecting components of a compromise many thought dead, early signs were encouraging for the party.
After Schumer briefed Democratic senators on the 725-page measure, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said lawmakers' reaction has been “uniformly positive." And Reps. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., and Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., suggested they could back the measure even though it lacks higher federal tax deductions for state and local taxes that they've championed in the past.
“We’re taking a giant step forward as a nation," Biden said at the White House. In a message to lawmakers, he called it a compromise that was “the strongest bill you can pass" to address health care, climate, energy and families' living costs. “Pass it, pass it for the American people."
The measure’s phoenix-like rebirth came Wednesday, when Manchin unexpectedly agreed to add tax, energy and environment provisions to a plan he'd earlier said he wanted limited, for now, to prescription drug price curbs and health care assistance. He told reporters Thursday that his talks with Schumer had continued and disputed that he'd reversed himself.
“I've never been in reverse in my lifetime and I never walked away,” Manchin, who has COVID-19 and has stayed away from the Capitol, said in a conference call. He also described what he said he's endured during the past year, when he repeatedly forced Biden and top Democrats to whittle down what was initially a $3.5 trillion proposal.
“No one in their right mind would go through all the protest, harassments" that he faced, Manchin said, after he scuttled a roughly $2 trillion version that the House had passed after he insisted on cuts. He said Democrats “turned the dogs loose" on him two weeks ago after he told Schumer that he wanted a measure limited to health care this month because of inflation fears.
He said he was now backing the expanded bill “because I know I’m not adding to inflation" with the agreement. And he acknowledged that he wants the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will deliver natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia, to be at “the top of the heap” under permitting procedures that Biden and congressional leaders have pledged to move through Congress this fall.
Loose ends remain in a 50-50 Senate where support from every Democrat — plus Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote — are needed to overcome unanimous Republican opposition that seems preordained. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who last year joined Manchin in forcing cuts and changes in larger versions of the plan, declined to tell reporters her stance.
In the narrowly divided House, Democrats can lose no more than four votes and prevail. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a leader of the centrist House Blue Dog Coalition, said she wouldn't yet comment on her views. “I don’t think there’s anybody wildly pleased," said No. 2 House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. “But I think the overwhelming majority think the things that are in it are good things.”
Overall, the emerging package would raise $739 billion over a decade from higher taxes on huge corporations and hedge fund owners, beefed up IRS tax collections and lower federal costs from trimming pharmaceutical prices. It would spend $369 billion on energy and climate change initiatives, what analysts and environmentalists called the largest federal investment ever on clean energy. Another $64 billion would be to extend health insurance subsidies for three years, leaving $306 billion for a modest swipe at massive federal deficits.
The measure is markedly less ambitious than the $3.5 trillion version that stumbled, shrank and ultimately died in Congress last year, largely due to Manchin's opposition. The new bill lacks many of the party’s initial goals including funds for a more generous child tax credit, paid family leave, expanded Medicare benefits and health care aid for poor families in the dozen states — mostly Republican and in the South — that refused to expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Even so, the surprise agreement moves Biden and Democrats to the edge of claiming victory on top priorities like addressing global warming and easing consumers' health care costs, and boosting levies on the affluent to pay for it.
“It’s bigger than nothing,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who with other progressives fought vainly last year against Manchin’s efforts to trim the proposal. After Manchin prevailed, “A lot of us thought this was done unless we had more Senate seats, and the fact that we’re able to still get something quite substantial done is impressive.”
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., another of his party's more conservative lawmakers, called the bill's prescription drug provisions “the most important piece of legislation we'll vote on in this Congress" besides last fall's infrastructure measure.
As leaders sold the plan to their members, the government reported that the economy had constricted for a second straight quarter. Worries that a recession was coming only intensified concerns over the nation’s worst bout with inflation since the 1980s.
Both parties know inflation and economic anxiety is on top of voters’ minds. With Republicans expected to win control of the House and perhaps the Senate too, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., turned his fire on Democrats' measure.
"Our colleagues across the aisle have already completely lost Americans’ trust on the economy, before this reckless taxing and spending spree. Apparently they want to see how much farther they can fall,” he said.
The bill would create tax credits for low- and middle-income buyers of electric vehicles, plus grants and tax breaks to spur clean energy technology and reduce carbon emissions.
Medicare would begin negotiating for the pharmaceuticals it buys, prescription price increases would be limited and Medicare beneficiaries' out-of-pocket drug costs would be capped at $2,000 annually.
AP reporter Matthew Daly contributed to this report.