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Manchin puts paid family leave, Medicare vouchers on spending bill chopping block

Democrats are optimistic that a deal on Biden's social safety net package is imminent, but disagreements on key issues remain.
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WASHINGTON — Paid family leave, one of the hallmarks of President Joe Biden's social safety net agenda, is in jeopardy of being pared once again or even cut from a major spending bill over a lack of support from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Manchin, one of two Senate Democrats who have chipped away at Biden's "Build Back Better" proposal, is against including four weeks of paid family and medical leave, said two sources familiar with the negotiations. The provision was recently presented as a compromise to the 12 weeks Biden initially proposed.

Asked Monday whether he had concerns about the paid leave proposal, Manchin said: "I'm concerned about an awful lot of things."

His comments come just days after Biden said paid leave had been curtailed but not eliminated.

“It is down to four weeks," Biden said at a CNN town hall on Thursday. "And, the reason it's down to four weeks? I can't get 12 weeks.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Manchin's position.

Shortly after Manchin's remarks, he was seen huddling with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., for several minutes outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Gillibrand later told reporters she is negotiating with Manchin to ensure that paid family leave stays in the bill.

“I think he is open to this in good faith. I think he fully understands this is essential to working parents, and working families all across America,” Gillibrand said of her discussion with Manchin.

“Democrats are pushing for a robust paid family leave program, but right now four weeks is looking more likely,” an aide closely involved with crafting the provisions told NBC News, adding that the proposal is being “fiercely negotiated.”

The U.S. is one of just eight countries without national paid maternity leave. Even if Democrats were to settle on four weeks of paid parental leave, the U.S. would still lag numerous other countries. The global average for paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, and it is 16 weeks for paid paternity leave, according to data from the World Policy Analysis Center at UCLA.

Manchin is also souring on Medicare vouchers to help cover annual dental costs, as well as a push to expand Medicaid in Republican-led states that have not expanded coverage. Biden's original proposal called for broadening Medicare coverage to include dental care.

Some Democrats said too many key components of Biden's spending package have already been gutted to satisfy Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the other Democratic holdout in the Senate. New opposition to paid family leave, a priority for Biden and progressives, would mark a significant setback in negotiations over the bill.

During a trip to New Jersey on Monday, Biden commended Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, for offering paid leave but made little mention of his own leave proposal.

Image: President Joe Biden delivers remarks at NJ Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex to promote his "Build Back Better" agenda, on Oct. 25, 2021, in Kearny, N.J.
President Joe Biden speaks Monday at the NJ Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny, N.J., to promote his "Build Back Better" agenda. Evan Vucci / AP

"These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency," Biden said. "They're about expanding opportunity, not opportunity denied. They're about leading the world or continuing to let the world pass us by."

Advocates had felt confident that four weeks of paid leave would make it into the final bill, especially because the provision meets Manchin's criteria for work requirements and means testing. But optimism appeared to drop over the weekend as advocacy groups sent email blasts asking allies to ramp up their efforts to support paid leave on social media, according to emails obtained by NBC News.

After Republicans made clear they would unanimously oppose Biden's social safety net bill, Democrats have been forced to hammer out legislation that can pass with simple majorities in the House and the Senate.

Without any Republican support, Democrats cannot afford to lose any of their 50 votes in the Senate and must hold their narrow majority together in the House.

Moderate Democrats, especially Manchin and Sinema, have taken issue with several aspects of Biden's spending agenda and have sought a smaller price tag than the $3.5 trillion top line that was initially proposed. Biden had hoped to get the bill passed by the end of the summer, but internal negotiations have dragged on for months.

At a dinner with reporters in Washington, D.C., Manchin said he believes a deal is doable, while adding there must be "balance."

"Do I think we can do something? I absolutely do. Do I think it will be done? Well, you kind of hope so, but do I think there shouldn't be a kind of a balance to it? Yeah," he said on Monday.

Manchin said he regularly talks with the president privately, adding that Biden's nickname for him is "Joe-Joe."

"We’ve known each other for quite some time, and he's a good man. He truly is a good man with a good heart and a good soul," Manchin said.

The West Virginian lawmaker went on to say that it's been difficult for him to get on the same page as his Democratic colleagues in the Senate.

"I have a hard time and I'm totally out of sync with 48 other Democrats, so totally out of sync, I love them all. And I love all the Republicans. So I'm just trying to survive in a very, very, very divided Congress in a very divided country," he said.

"I think we’ll get something, I really do," Manchin added of a potential deal on spending.

Biden told reporters earlier on Monday that it is his "hope" to reach an agreement on the social policy bill before he leaves this week for the G20 summit in Rome and the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

"It'd be very, very positive to get it done before the trip," Biden said.

Schumer, who joined Manchin on Sunday at Biden's home in Delaware to discuss the spending bill, said Monday that there were "three or four outstanding issues." He did not go into detail.

"No one ever said passing transformational legislation like this would be easy, but we are on track to get this done," Schumer said on the Senate floor.

Some House Democrats are putting pressure on Manchin to keep certain components of Biden's proposal intact.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., called Manchin on Sunday after his meeting with Biden, and the two lawmakers discussed Medicaid, multiple sources confirmed. South Carolina is one of the Republican-led states that did not accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid.

Congressional Democrats are also searching for a way to pay for the social safety net legislation, particularly after Sinema objected to raising the tax rates for the highest tax bracket and on corporations.

Democrats are discussing a surtax on people who make more than $10 million a year, two sources familiar with the negotiations said. But that would increase federal revenue by only about $63 billion for a bill that is expected to approach $2 trillion. A similar proposal, which would have set the threshold at $5 million a year, was not supported by Sinema, the sources said.

Another revenue-raising plan in the works is a so-called billionaire's tax. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told reporters Monday that he plans to release his proposal this week, a strong sign that Sinema will not oppose it.