WASHINGTON — With much of their agenda stalled, Democrats vowed to pick up the pieces of their broken Build Back Better bill and figure out what they can pass, even if that means drastically cutting the size and scope of the legislation’s ambitious social spending and climate programs.
“What we need to do now is to cut a deal — a principled deal — that spends whatever money we do spend, [and] spends it wisely,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said Tuesday, citing broader agreement within the caucus on provisions intended to fight climate change.
“I think that all the historical signs seem to be pointing to some narrower set of segments,” added Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Obviously, the old saying, ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,’ has been vastly overstated, but it’s still true.”
Hammering out a narrower bill may be easier said than done, however. Each piece has vocal constituencies backing it, and most Democrats are reluctant to cite specific examples of things they would cut.
Even if Democrats in the Senate ultimately get on the same page, they would need to win support from frustrated progressives in the House, who watched the bill get smaller and smaller.
Negotiations stalled last month after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced his opposition to the bill, which would spend $1.8 trillion over the next 10 years, with the cost mostly offset by tax increases on corporations and the wealthy. Manchin cited concerns with inflation and debt as reasons to pump the brakes on another round of federal spending.
There’s been no movement since then. The White House has shifted its focus to passing voting rights legislation — an issue that seems even more difficult to advance in the 50-50 Senate. Absent some kind of agreement, Democrats are facing brutal losses on two big agenda items.
“We know what Sen. Manchin is against, we just need to know what he’s for.”
House Democrats, back this week from their holiday break, vowed to pass the bill in some form — though lawmakers did not have any clear idea of what changes they needed to make.
“We’re gonna build back something,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) told HuffPost. “We know what Sen. Manchin is against, we just need to know what he’s for.”
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and one of the main authors of the House version of Build Back Better, also said Manchin needs to tell his fellow Democrats what he’ll support.
“I still think this is entirely workable, necessary for the country, and it’s very popular,” Neal said. “So I think that getting this done is essential.”
Democrats have said the legislation is their key to success in the 2022 midterm elections, in which Republicans are heavily favored to retake control of the House of Representatives. The bill would expand access to prekindergarten, give Medicare power to negotiate prescription drug prices, subsidize child care and create a host of tax breaks for green energy.
The bill would also continue monthly payments to parents that went out from July through December but have since stopped. The child tax credit payments cut child poverty and represent one of the bill’s only immediate, tangible benefits, putting money directly into the bank accounts of most American parents. But Manchin has complained that parents waste the money on drugs and seems to want it dropped from the bill.
“I don’t think he supports the program,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) told HuffPost. “But I’m telling you, you tell me a program that has had that success in that short a period of time.”
One data point that may make passing the bill even more difficult is this week’s upcoming report on consumer prices, which have risen rapidly in the past year amid COVID-19-fueled shortages. Democrats argue Build Back Better will negate the effects of inflation by lowering the cost of things like child care and health care, but senators like Manchin haven’t been swayed.
Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), one of more than two dozen “front-line” Democrats considered especially vulnerable in their reelection bids, said her party should still pass the bill, but not negotiate endlessly.
“We need to put it on a limited timeline,” Wild told HuffPost, adding that if Democrats can’t agree on a big bill within that timeline, they should pick a few items to prioritize, especially ones that might have bipartisan support.
One priority Wild suggested would be Build Back Better’s $35 monthly cap on co-pays for insulin treatments. The proposal wouldn’t kick in until 2023 and would initially apply only to products covered by insurance.
“I’d be shocked if we couldn’t get some bipartisan support for that,” Wild said.
Another front-line Democrat, Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), suggested Democrats ought to see if Manchin would actually vote against the bill if it were brought to the Senate floor for a vote.
“They should pass Build Back Better as soon as possible; it’s ready to go,” Underwood said. “It’s fully paid for by requiring tax evaders and the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.”
Last month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed to hold a vote on Build Back Better “so that every member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television.”
Manchin probably wouldn’t shy away from such a vote, given that he represents a predominantly red state. The strategy could pose a problem for vulnerable Democrats who are facing reelection this year, however. Those senators would likely face added GOP attacks over their support for a bill that faces bipartisan opposition.