December 2, 2021

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Live Updates: Democrats on the ‘Verge of Something Major,’ Pelosi Says of Budget Talks – The New York Times

11 min read
ImageDemocrats are seeking to pacify key centrist holdouts balking at central pieces of the budget bill.
Credit…Oliver Contreras for The New York Times

Democrats met privately on Capitol Hill on Tuesday as they searched for an elusive compromise on a domestic policy and climate package, pressing to resolve crucial disagreements over health benefits, paid leave, environmental provisions and how to pay for the entire plan.

As Democrats seek to pacify key centrist holdouts balking at central pieces of the bill, party leaders are lobbying rank-and-file lawmakers, particularly liberals, to accept a measure that will be far smaller than an initial $3.5 trillion blueprint that passed Congress earlier this year. House Democrats huddled on Tuesday morning to discuss the negotiations at their weekly caucus meeting, while Senate Democrats were expected to continue privately meeting throughout the day on climate and tax provisions.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California told Democrats they were on “the verge of something major,” according to two people familiar with her comments, who disclosed the private remarks on condition of anonymity. She called the legislation “transformative, historic and bigger than anything else.”

The caucus concluded shortly before 10:30 a.m. Ms. Pelosi and Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, are set to meet this afternoon as talks continue over the plan, according to an aide.

Leaving the caucus meeting, Ms. Pelosi said “there’s not that much more time — we have to have decisions largely today, a little bit into tomorrow, so we can proceed.” Asked about what was left on the negotiating table, she said, “I think it’s pretty self-evident.”

At the White House, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, acknowledged that the package would not contain everything that President Biden originally wanted, but she argued that it was still well worth supporting.

“The alternative to what is being negotiated is not the original package, it is nothing,” she said, warning against letting “the perfect be the enemy of the historic.”

The White House and congressional leaders hope for a deal on the expansive plan this week, before Mr. Biden leaves on Thursday for a trip that includes a United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, where he is expected to call for stronger international action to counter the toll of climate change. His case could be bolstered by an agreement on a new social policy bill that includes strong new climate programs.

“It changes the lives of the American people,” Mr. Biden said of the proposed legislation during an appearance at a transit maintenance facility in Kearny, N.J., on Monday, where he promoted the plan’s payments to families with children and child care assistance. “So let’s get this done — let’s move.”

But with Republicans uniformly opposed to the bill, Democrats cannot afford to lose even a single vote from their party in the 50-50 Senate, giving any senator outsized power to sink the plan over even a single provision. That has further complicated the effort to muscle the bill through Congress using a special budget process known as reconciliation that shields it from a filibuster.

The emerging compromise could spend around $1.75 trillion over 10 years, though leading Democrats were trying to nudge Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a key centrist, closer to $2 trillion. Mr. Manchin and other moderates have resisted significant pieces of the plan, including environmental provisions, health care expansions and tax increases designed to pay for the spending.

Mr. Manchin, in particular, has balked at multiple climate provisions, in part as a defense of his coal-rich state. He has effectively jettisoned a proposed $150 billion program that would replace coal- and gas-fired power plants with wind and solar power, and is now pushing to remove or modify a provision that would impose a fee on emissions of methane, which are commonly produced in coal mining.

He is also facing pressure from his colleagues over his resistance to two key expansions of health care benefits and a new paid leave program. He has so far opposed a push, led by Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is chairman of the Budget Committee, to expand Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing benefits, citing the program’s financial instability.

And he has also expressed concerns about a push to cover a Medicaid expansion for the dozen states whose leaders have refused to expand the program under the Affordable Care Act. West Virginia is among the states that expanded Medicaid and pay 10 percent of the cost, and Mr. Manchin has said the proposal would in essence reward states for holding out.

The Senate Finance Committee is readying the details of a billionaires’ tax, an entirely new approach to taxing wealth, and other tax provisions that will help pay for the bill without increasing the corporate or individual tax rates. While House Democrats were expressing concerns about the details of the plan, which is largely being crafted by their Senate counterparts, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a key holdout on the bill, has remained opposed to those rate increases.

Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

If something about this week’s frantic negotiations over President Biden’s domestic agenda seems achingly familiar, there’s a good reason.

Democrats went through the same painful dance — a legislative deadline, a marathon round of private talks with centrist holdouts, ultimatums from progressives — just a month ago, emerging without a deal and punting until this month.

All the same elements are in place now as Mr. Biden and top Democrats toil to strike a compromise that will allow their sprawling social policy, climate and tax increase bill and a separate, $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill to move forward.

First, there is a hard deadline for approving the infrastructure measure before federal highway programs lapse on Sunday, which could force the furlough of thousands of Department of Transportation workers and shut down public works projects.

Then there are the ongoing, round-the-clock talks to entice two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, into the party fold on the broader domestic policy bill.

And of course, there are progressives in the House growing increasingly uneasy as they see some of their priorities being slashed or left on the cutting room floor. Trying to flex their recently developed muscle, some progressives want a House vote on final legislative language on the social safety net bill before agreeing to hand over their votes for the infrastructure measure.

It has all conjured up an eerie sense of déjà vu among Democrats on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers and aides remember all too well the last week of September, when they then ultimately failed to get either an agreement on the safety net legislation or a floor vote on the infrastructure plan, setting up this repeat performance.

Given the political forces at play, it is possible that the outcome could be the same this time. But Democrats believe there are some distinctions that could make a difference this go-round. They say they are further along in the talks with the two reluctant Senate Democrats and have narrowed their differences, putting them closer to a final agreement.

And while progressives are unhappy with the scaled-down scope of the plan — which some of them initially wanted to total $6 trillion and is now in the neighborhood of $1.75 trillion — many of them have accepted the political reality that such a costly bill cannot squeak through a Congress where Democratic majorities are so slim.

Time pressures are also mounting. Democrats would dearly like to pass the infrastructure measure before the highway program expires on Halloween. It would not only avert a disruption, but could help the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, in the tight Virginia governor’s race next week.

Democrats also want to send Mr. Biden to climate talks in Scotland next week with new programs to curb emissions firmly in hand. And they would like to end the unsightly sausage-making that is going on so they can start selling the benefits of the measures to those who could gain from them, rather than keeping the focus on what is being jettisoned.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was hard at work Tuesday morning trying to keep the pressure on.

“There’s not that much more time,’’ Ms. Pelosi said as she left a private party meeting. “We have to have decisions largely today, a little bit into tomorrow, so we can proceed.”

Of course, something about that sounds familiar as well.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has pushed Democrats to drop or weaken a second major climate change provision from the sweeping social policy and environmental spending bill that the White House hopes to finalize this week, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Manchin, a centrist Democrat from one of the country’s top coal- and gas-producing states, wants to remove or modify a provision that would impose a fee on emissions of methane, a powerful planet-warming pollutant that leaks from oil and gas wells. He has already effectively succeeded in stripping the bill of its most powerful climate change provision, a program that would have rapidly shut down coal and gas-fired power plants and replaced them with wind and solar power.

Democrats are racing to finalize the details of the budget bill this week. President Biden is set to attend a major climate summit in Glasgow this weekend, and he hopes to point to the bill to make the case that the United States, the world’s largest historical greenhouse polluter, is finally taking strong, forceful action to cut its fossil fuel emissions — and to push other countries to do the same. Mr. Biden has pledged that the United States will reduce its emissions 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Analysts have found that it would be technically possible, although difficult, for the United States to meet that goal without passing the clean electricity legislation that Mr. Manchin opposes. The broader spending package still includes about $300 billion in tax credits for wind and solar energy, which analysts say could get the United States about halfway to Mr. Biden’s target. But removing the methane fee legislation could further weaken his case in Glasgow.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Manchin did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for the senator who is writing the methane fee legislation said it has not yet been excised from the bill.

“The methane fee is not out of the package,” said Rachel Levitan, a spokeswoman for Senator Thomas Carper, the Delaware Democrat who leads the Senate Environment Committee. “Chairman Carper is working to get robust climate provisions in the reconciliation bill and is in active negotiations to ensure that the bill meaningfully reduces greenhouse gas emissions.”

Another person familiar with the matter said that Mr. Manchin appeared open to negotiating the details of the methane fee to make it easier and cheaper for natural gas companies to comply.

Separately, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release a draft regulation as soon as this week that would compel oil and gas producers to monitor and plug methane leaks from existing oil and gas wells. Among Mr. Manchin’s objections to the fee is that it could be duplicative of those rules, according to the two people familiar with the matter.

While Senate Democratic leaders have pledged that the broader budget legislation — which could run between 5,000 and 10,000 pages — will be completed this week, people familiar with the process said it was more likely that Democrats would agree to a broad-brush framework before Mr. Biden travels to Glasgow, and that he would have to make the case to the world that lawmakers would indeed soon pass the bill.

“The entire world knows the name Manchin now,” said Rich Gold, a Democratic energy lobbyist and former E.P.A. adviser. “So if he is able to go to Glasgow and say, here is the piece of paper representing the deal, and here’s Senator Manchin’s name on the bottom, I think the Germans will be OK.”

Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

The budget reconciliation process allows Congress to advance certain spending and tax bills on a simple majority vote, freeing lawmakers in the Senate from the 60-vote threshold most legislation must meet to be considered. Democrats are aiming to use the process to pass the sweeping social safety net and climate change measure, which carries much of President Biden’s agenda, in the face of united Republican opposition.

The process begins with a budget resolution, which establishes a blueprint for federal spending and directs congressional committees to write bills to achieve certain policy results, setting spending and revenues over a certain amount of time. Its name refers to the process of reconciling existing laws with those directives. Here are some key things to know about the legislative maneuver.

While reconciliation allows senators to scale procedural and scheduling hurdles, it is also subject to strict limits that could constrain the scope of any package Democrats seek to pass.

In the Senate, the “Byrd Rule,” established by former Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, bars extraneous provisions, including any measure that does not change revenues or spending, affects the Social Security program or increases the deficit after a certain period of time set in the budget resolution. It is intended to ensure that the reconciliation process cannot be abused to jam through any unrelated provision.

The rule’s name lends itself to a number of bird-related puns commonly used to describe the stages of the reconciliation process. There is the “Byrd bath,” when the Senate parliamentarian scrubs and analyzes a bill for any provision that violates the rule if a senator raises a concern about a violation. Anything that does not survive the scrutiny is known as a “Byrd dropping,” and is removed from the legislation before it can advance.

Vice President Kamala Harris could also overrule the parliamentarian, but that has not been done since 1975.

A budget blueprint on the social spending and climate bill was advanced in August and committees have been working on drafting the reconciliation legislation, but key centrist Democrats in the Senate who have balked at the $3.5 trillion price tag have brought the process to an impasse as party leaders try to negotiate a compromise.

Because Republicans have made it clear they are unified in their opposition, Democrats cannot afford to lose even one vote from their party in the Senate. In the House, the math is almost as challenging; if every member voted, Democrats could afford to lose only three of their members and still pass the legislation.

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