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Democrats' big bill faces a cliff-filled future

The emerging Build Back Better Act is likely to put expiration dates on key progressive priorities — to a future when Democrats may not have the power to renew them.
Image: Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer
The Democrats' massive spending bill has been structured so many of its programs would come up for renewal in coming years when the party may not control Congress.Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — As Democrats wrestle with what to include in their massive social spending bill, some of the biggest divisions are rooted in guessing games over future Republican decision-making.

The budget rules that prohibit deficits after 10 years ensure that many programs would come up for renewal in future years when Democrats may not control Congress, with giant partisan question marks hanging over the future of progressive priorities packed into the measure.

How likely, they wonder, would a future GOP Congress be to boost funding for child cash payments? Or subsidies for the Affordable Care Act? Or a new Medicare benefit? Never? Maybe?

Democrats have made that sort of gamble before — with less-than-ideal outcomes. Still, some say they have no choice but to take their chances again.

"In an ideal world, we would pass all good things in perpetuity. But we don't live in an ideal world," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. "And so you've got to try to work with the clay in front of you and do the best you can."

And so for now, the measure remains studded with new cliffs.

Democrats are considering a two-year change to the contentious cap on state and local tax deductions of $10,000, all but guaranteeing another political battle when the deadline arrives.

Then there's the expanded child tax credit, which the American Rescue Plan raised to a maximum of $3,600 a child per month for one year. The House version of the bill would extend it through 2025.

Democrats bet that Republicans will be unwilling to let it expire — and if they are willing, Democrats would be eager to battle it out in a campaign, they say. But Republicans have largely coalesced around, at a minimum, eliminating the credit for the lowest-income recipients; Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., already sounds sympathetic to the GOP view.

The biggest such internal debate is over health care, in which the Democratic Party is caught between two expensive competing priorities: fixing the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, and expanding Medicare to cover vision, hearing and dental benefits.

For now, expanded ACA benefits would be made permanent in the House bill, although that could change as Democratic leaders face pressure to bring down the price tag. Committee aides are keeping their options open to set expiration dates earlier to lower the overall cost.

In addition to increasing subsidies for private plans, the House plan would create a permanent Medicaid program to cover low-income workers in states where Republican legislatures have declined to accept ACA funding.

Meanwhile, the Medicare expansion has a powerful champion in Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Budget Committee, who can influence progressive votes in the House, as well. As a result, the Senate plan is expected to be weighted in the other direction, with more funding to either stand up Medicare benefits quickly or to fill gaps while it's implemented.

To make the math add up, the added ACA benefits may have to be temporary. The result would be a new cliff — with, potentially, major parts of the ACA at stake.

Some Democrats see potential advantages in setting up future standoffs over the ACA. Republicans balked at repealing large parts of the law in 2017 after a backlash in polls, and they were punished by voters in the next midterm elections when Democratic candidates made health care a dominant theme.

"Longer terms are better so people can count on stability, but it's hard to see Republicans forcing up health insurance costs or raising taxes on families once these become law," said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has worked on a variety of health care campaigns. "They'll oppose lower health insurance costs and lower taxes now, but they won't want to be the ones responsible for raising them later."

Some members are nervous over the prospect of future standoffs with Republicans to maintain the bill's benefits. After all, the reason Democrats need to fix the ACA's Medicaid provision in the first place is that GOP leaders have steadfastly refused to accept billions of dollars in federal funding for a policy that polls well even in more conservative states.

And Republicans are voluntarily setting up a high-stakes standoff of their own this month by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, which risks triggering a government shutdown and a financial crisis.

"I'm trying to get away from these cliffs," said Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who cited his Clean Energy for America Act, an entry in the reconciliation debate that seeks to consolidate dozens of temporary energy tax breaks into one long-term solution.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., a retiring member in a GOP-leaning district, urged his colleagues this month to consider picking a few key areas in which to make decisive permanent change, especially in the ACA, rather than spread the bill thin with underfunded and expiring items.

"Rather than put in place permanent federal programs that help our communities and our economy, we continue to kick the can down the road and pass short-term stop gap measures," Kind wrote in an op-ed in The Hill.

And he said Democrats erred in 2009 by not ponying up for more robust health care benefits. "We tried to do too much with too little, and as a result, it took ten years to get this critical program on solid footing through the passage of the American Rescue Plan," Kind said.

Despite the risk, some Democrats say they prefer to remain on the cliff's edge.

Connolly suggested that it might be healthier for democracy if some benefits have to be renewed regularly, because it "builds in oversight and accountability." He predicted that voters would be eager to preserve the child tax credit and that they would be likely to punish Republicans who run on letting it expire after the midterms.

"And if they don't, then we were wrong," he said.