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Democrats race to finish social safety net bill, but key disputes persist

The party is grappling with uncertainty over a potential billionaires tax and progressive anxiety over trimming climate change provisions.

WASHINGTON — Democrats frantically worked Tuesday to resolve disputes over President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" proposal, but skepticism persisted that a deal could be reached quickly amid new uncertainty surrounding a potential billionaires tax and new tensions over climate change.

"It's just so tenuous. Everything is so tenuous," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a pivotal centrist who could make or break core components of Biden's sweeping agenda.

Manchin has expressed concerns about programs that would guarantee paid leave and extend Medicaid coverage. He did not specify what changes in those provisions would win his support.

"Everything is under negotiation," he told reporters. "Everybody's talking constructively. Everybody's trying to work and find that pathway forward."

Manchin demurred when he was asked whether his proposed $1.5 trillion spending cap could be increased to secure a deal.

"I'm not going to negotiate with you," Manchin told NBC News.

The initial price tag for the spending package was $3.5 trillion, but negotiations have made it more likely that the top line will fall below $2 trillion.

Manchin has also called for sharply reining in the bill's approach to clean energy. He was accosted Tuesday afternoon outside the Capitol by an environmental activist affiliated with the Sunrise Movement, and some progressive senators are bristling at the thought of adding language that would benefit the fossil fuel industry.

"There are provisions that are being considered as part of this package that would be horrific for climate down the road," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., referring to ideas that would "extend the life of methane" and steer the U.S. toward "blue hydrogen."

Merkley said lingering issues for the bill as a whole include climate policy, Medicaid coverage gaps, Medicare drug negotiations and an expansion of Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits.

"There's just huge pieces of this that are not nailed down. So each time I hear 'Well, it's almost done,' I don't know what the hell people are talking about," he said.

The White House does not expect a significant breakthrough Tuesday, multiple officials said. Biden and his top aides continue to have meetings and calls with lawmakers, officials said, and Biden met with several members of Congress for a closed-door meeting at the White House earlier in the day.

The White House is still working through issues like health care, taxes and paid leave, an official said, without offering specifics.

An unresolved issue is how to finance the bill after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., objected to higher tax rates for wealthy earners and corporations.

In recent days Democrats have floated a new revenue raiser that would require billionaires to pay a tax on a "built-in gain" their assets have accrued. Manchin has expressed openness to the idea.

But Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, voiced uncertainty, saying his members have yet to review the text or scrutinize the proposal.

"We'll have to see what the traffic will bear," he said, adding that Democrats are working to get "over the goal line."

Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the language could come out as early as Tuesday night. It would require all 50 Democratic votes to advance in the Senate, and some Democratic-voting senators are not sold yet.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said: "I'm not going to respond to it until I have a better grasp of the asset classes. I need to go see it and have someone who works for me walk me through it."

Two tax proposals with broad support among Democrats are a 15 percent minimum corporate tax and strengthened IRS enforcement to collect more revenue. House leaders are also considering a surtax for people with annual incomes over $5 million or $10 million.

Sinema signaled her support for the 15 percent minimum rate, saying in a statement that it was a "commonsense step toward ensuring that highly profitable corporations ... pay a reasonable minimum corporate tax on their profits."

Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has insisted that Medicare be expanded to include dental, vision and hearing coverage, saying it is nonnegotiable. Democrats are weighing a workaround for Manchin's skepticism about the cost: giving vouchers to seniors rather than guaranteeing the benefits.

Democrats are also scrambling to save some prized programs. The scaled-back paid family and medical leave plan of four weeks now appears unlikely to make it into the bill because of Manchin's opposition, but Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she is working on a new version with the hope that Manchin will support it.

Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia are lobbying to include extended Medicaid coverage, which would benefit predominantly Southern states led by Republican governors and GOP legislatures that did not expand the federal program.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Tuesday that "90 percent" of the bill is written and that she hopes to reach an agreement this week.

She said Sunday on CNN that the plan is to pass a separate infrastructure bill by Wednesday. The Senate passed the measure in August with bipartisan support.

Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., said Pelosi has encouraged lawmakers not to draw "red lines" on policies like paid leave, which could be on the chopping block.

In their closed-door weekly caucus meeting, Pelosi updated members on the status of the social safety net and infrastructure bills, telling them that they will proceed with a vote on infrastructure only if they have more details and an agreement on the "Build Back Better" plan, three sources in the room said.

While the final details are still being worked out, Pelosi tried to rally her members, urging them to "embrace" the safety net package because "no bill is everything," the sources said.

As for the billionaires tax, Pelosi did not throw her weight behind it.

"We haven't seen one written word about the billionaires tax," she said.

Pelosi added that Democrats "are on the verge of something major — transformative, historic and bigger than anything else," a source said.