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Democrats split over how to pare Biden agenda as $3.5 trillion price tag falls

Moderates want fewer but permanent programs. Progressives urge creating many, even if they expire. And what about climate policies?
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WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden puts his party on notice that the $3.5 trillion price tag on his social safety net agenda will get cut in order to secure a deal, congressional Democrats are confronting fresh divisions over how to scale back.

In recent days, some Democrats have begun pushing to narrow the scope of the package to a few programs and to make them permanent so a future Republican-led Congress or White House cannot let them lapse.

Others want to seize the rare opportunity of one-party control to create a host of new programs with expiration dates to meet price considerations, planning to battle Republicans in future elections if they try to end them. Lawmakers have long dreaded the dilemma, and tough decisions are nearing as two centrist Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — play hardball to slash the overall spending.

"We think we need to do a few things better, for longer, to provide that consistency," said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., the chair of the 95-member New Democrat Coalition.

She identified four priorities for the coalition: extending the $3,000 to $3,600 annual per-child cash payments to most families, continuing the expanded Obamacare subsidies under the American Rescue Plan, closing the Medicaid coverage gap and "going big" on measures to address climate change.

The narrower and deeper approach would avoid "short-term cliffs that mean important programs may not get extended," she said.

But some leading progressives want to go in a different direction.

"If we have to trim a little, then what we would prefer to do is have our priorities and these programs fully represented but perhaps for a shorter number of years, because I don't think we can pick and choose between child care and climate change," Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Tuesday on MSNBC.

"I don't think we can choose between pre-K and housing," she said.

'Litigate it in 2024'

The contrasting views are a challenge for Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as they hear the demands of their members. The three leaders are tasked with crafting a massive bill that can pass through the slimmest of margins in Congress, with zero margin for error in the evenly split Senate and just three votes to lose in the House before it collapses.

All have their priorities. Not all can be met.

In a letter to colleagues Thursday, Pelosi said Democrats are "proceeding with a sharpened pencil," making the bill "smaller" but "still transformative." She identified three areas of focus: health care, family care and climate change.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a member of the progressive caucus, said that the programs are popular and that Democrats should be happy to run on extending them.

"We should reduce the years and run on providing every American with preschool, child care, paid leave, new green jobs, and seniors with dental, hearing and vision. Then, if the Republicans want to take those benefits away, we can litigate it in 2024 and beyond," he said.

In a meeting with Biden, a group of progressives argued Monday that $2.5 trillion to $2.9 trillion would be an acceptable size of the Build Back Better plan because, they argue, they can then keep everything in the bill, said two sources familiar with the meeting.

They argued forcefully to include all provisions of the plan but to fund them for a shorter time frame than the 10 years permitted under the budget rules.

But the debate doesn't break cleanly on ideological lines. Even some progressives worry about short-term programs, particularly those relating to climate change.

Climate change provisions

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the climate provisions are the most important components. He said they shouldn't be phased out or set to expire to save money.

The crisis is "immediate," he said. But he acknowledged that the climate provisions are a challenge because Manchin has identified them as areas to scale back. Manchin "is our battle," Markey said.

Sinema's view is similar to Markey's. If the measure gets smaller, she wants to make sure the climate change provisions are included, followed by an extension of the child tax credit, a person close to Sinema said.

But Sinema is "not excited" about raising taxes, even on corporations, which puts her at odds with even Manchin, who is willing to raise the corporate tax rate to 25 percent. And her resistance to tax revenues could limit the ability to raise money to fully finance some programs.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he believes that if Democrats create "a good program, popular with the American people," future congresses will "find a way to extend it."

But there are pitfalls. For instance, if the onset of new Medicare dental benefits is years after the bill's enactment date, Durbin said, "it may never get off the ground."

A spokeswoman for Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said members are waiting to get direction from leadership about how much they are able to spend and how much revenue they need to summon in the bill, which is why a decision on the topline number is so critical.

The clean energy tax credit is expected to make it in, she said, noting that Manchin supports it as long as it is energy neutral, meaning it doesn't favor clean energy over fossil fuels. Manchin also wants to keep a tax deduction that fossil fuels have had for the past century.

Schumer told reporters Tuesday: "Everyone knows there's going to have to be give and compromise. Just about everyone will be disappointed in some things. Just about everyone will be pleased with some things. But we will get it done."