Dems need unity but split on huge social-welfare spending bill, risk scuttling Biden plans

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Congressional Democrats remain divided over the size and scope of a party-line social spending bill, with progressives demanding the final package including a variety of things, including immigration and Medicare expansion.

The debate took center stage as Congress faces a flurry of legislative deadlines ahead of the August recess. Democratic leaders hope to move in tandem a conventional $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and a multitrillion party-line social welfare or “human infrastructure” package.

“The discussions about infrastructure legislation continue along two tracks,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “The Senate must pass the budget resolution and an eventual budget reconciliation bill with or without Republican support.”

But Democratic disunity is complicating the strategy for reconciliation, a process allowing spending bills to avert the 60-vote threshold most legislation must clear and instead pass a simple majority of 51 votes.

The party’s far-left, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders of Vermont, demand a reconciliation package heavy on social welfare spending. Mr. Sanders, a self-described socialist who caucuses with Democrats, is also floating an expansion of Medicare benefits to cover vision, hearing and dental benefits.

Others are pushing for the inclusion of universal pre-kindergarten, money for racial justice programs and $400 billion to provide home care for older adults.

“What we are trying to do is transformative,” Mr. Sanders said. “Legislation that the president and I are supporting would go further to improve the lives of working people than any legislation since the 1930s.”

Some progressives further demand that the final deal include robust climate change and immigration initiatives. It is unlikely, though, such topics fit the narrow rules governing reconciliation.

The inclusion of liberal priorities has only driven the price tag ever upwards of a potential reconciliation bill. After a meeting at the White House with President Biden on Monday, Mr. Sanders said the reconciliation bill could be more than $3.5 trillion.

Moderate Democrats, however, balk at the figure and the scope. Many, already eyeing a rough election year in 2022, refuse to say if they will support reconciliation.

At the moment, the battle is playing out in Mr. Sanders’ committee. The panel, which includes a cross-section of the Democratic conference, will draft the initial resolution to kick off the reconciliation process. That resolution will set the top-line spending figures for the bill.

Moderates and progressives within the Budget Committee are trying to hammer out a deal acceptable to all sides.

“I think everything’s on the table,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat on the budget panel. “The big issue for us right now is the caucus and just figuring out what are the contours of this package.”

Given the narrow majorities that Democrats hold in both the House and Senate, the task might prove impossible. Most notably, any single Democrat within the Senate can hold reconciliation hostage to their demands.

Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, one of the most conservative Democrats in the upper chamber, will be key to a deal. To win his support, Democrats likely need to narrow the size and scope of their ambitions even more.

Last month, Mr. Manchin said his ceiling for reconciliation is between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion, provided the tax hikes to pay for it are limited to repealing Trump-era tax cuts.

“I want to make sure we pay for it, I do not want to add more debt,” Mr. Manchin said recently. “So if that’s one trillion, or one and a half or two trillion, whatever that comes out to be over a 10-year period. That’s what I would be voting for.”

To solidify his support, Democratic leaders have proposed including in reconciliation an $8 billion tax credit to spur green-energy manufacturing in areas such as West Virginia with high unemployment and recently shuttered coal mines.

If Mr. Manchin or any other Senate Democrat cannot be brought on board, Republicans are unlikely to step in and save the deal. GOP lawmakers oppose any reconciliation bill, especially one crammed with liberal priorities authored by Mr. Sanders.

“The country didn’t elect a 50-50 Senate and a president who claimed to be a moderate so that Chairman Sanders could turn America into a socialist country,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

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