Democrats are trying to rebuild (a little) better

President Joe Biden’s economic agenda may have come back from the dead. If the original proposal was Build Back Better, it’s more like Build Back a Bit.

Democrats this week took the first official step toward reviving a simplified version of the nearly $2 trillion plan that Sen. Joe Manchin killed off late last year. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has asked the Senate Congressman to consider a draft agreement to reduce the cost of prescription drugs by allowing Medicare to negotiate prices directly — a long-sought Democratic priority that Manchin supports. . It’s one of the major elements of a deal that Schumer and Manchin discussed that would include hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change as well as tax hikes for the wealthy.

The deal could be ready for Senate votes by the end of this month, according to a Democrat familiar with the talks who described the development as “major progress” toward enacting part of Biden’s agenda before the midterm elections. Caveats abound: Schumer and Manchin have yet to complete the tax or climate portion of the bill, and the West Virginia centrist has already dropped out of negotiations. With no Republican support, Democrats need the congressman to determine whether their proposal can qualify for the process known as budget reconciliation, which would bypass an expected filibuster and allow a bill to pass in simple majority. A second Democratic aide, who like the first spoke anonymously to describe the delicate talks, told me a final deal would “likely take several weeks” and called hopes for a vote before Congress breaks for its August recess.

Still, the fact that the Schumer-Manchin talks have advanced even this far counts as a welcome surprise for Democrats, especially given the acrimony with which initial Build Back Better negotiations fell apart in December. Manchin walked away after accusing the White House of putting his family at risk by singling him out in an otherwise innocuous statement outlining the state of talks. Announcing his decision on Fox News, he further complained that the Democrats’ proposal was full of budget gimmicks and could worsen inflation. Because Manchin represented the crucial 50th vote in the equally divided Senate, his departure ended Biden’s hopes of realizing a progressive agenda that initially included a federal paid vacation program, universal pre-kindergarten, free community college and an extension. of the President’s expanded mandate. child tax credit.

Negotiations remained dormant all winter. “There is no Build Back Better bill,” Manchin told reporters in February. “It’s dead.” But he and Schumer quietly started talking again in the spring, keeping their negotiations secret both to avoid daily harassment from the Capitol Hill press and to keep Democrats hopeless. Many items from Biden’s original wish list are gone, as is the original $3.5 trillion price tag. The total revenue Schumer and Manchin now hope to generate through tax increases and drug price reform is expected to be in the $1 trillion range, with about $500 billion in new policy spending. climate and energy.

Any deal Schumer and Manchin reach will likely be applauded by most of the Democratic Party, including progressives. A $1 trillion bill may pale in comparison to the $3.5 trillion dream, but it’s far better than the nothing most Democrats expected to achieve in the past six months. “The contours are good,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told me of the potential deal. He said the climate piece was “by far” the most important aspect of the package for progressives, especially in light of last month’s Supreme Court ruling limiting the EPA’s ability to fight. against climate change. “We can’t undo Trump’s tax cuts if the planet is disintegrating. The two others [proposals] are political winners,” Green said of drug price reforms and tax increases. “Climate change is simply existential for the planet, and this could be our last chance.”

Another sign that the negotiations are serious is that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to torpedo them last week by threatening withdraw GOP support from a bipartisan high-tech manufacturing bill if Democrats move forward on a one-party reconciliation path. Schumer’s decision today suggests that at least for now, McConnell’s warning hasn’t scared Manchin off.

As I wrote last year, the political advantage of Biden’s economic agenda has always been its size and ambition, because it meant that with narrow margins in Congress he could withstand many cuts and represent still a significant legislative achievement. This remains true today, perhaps even more so. A deal on drug prices, climate spending and tax increases, combined with Biden’s $1.9 trillion US bailout, $1 trillion infrastructure bill and recent bipartisan compromise on gun safety, would make the president’s legislative record much stronger.

Politically, a scaled-down bill that passes near the midterm elections, when fresh in voters’ minds, could be just as good for Democrats as a larger bill passed months earlier. . Each of the main components has clear constituencies. Reducing the cost of prescription drugs is a particular success for seniors, a key voting bloc, and Democrats also plan to sell the change as a way to offset the impact of inflation. Tackling climate change is a priority for progressive and younger voters, whom Democrats are due to vote in November. And polls have long shown that tax hikes on the wealthy are among the most widely popular proposals in Biden’s plan.

Members of Congress love their sports metaphors, and with that in mind, the emerging Schumer-Manchin proposal is less of a Hail Mary pass and more of a field goal attempt just before halftime. In substance, none of the proposals would completely solve the problems they seek to solve. The drug pricing system is less ambitious than Democrats initially wanted, and Manchin has already watered down some of the climate policies supported by progressives. Electorally, given persistent inflation and Biden’s approval rating plunging into the 1930s, maintaining a majority in the House may be impossible for Democrats (the Senate is another story). But taken as a whole, the package could help Democrats keep the score close, both in their attempt to deliver tangible results for their constituents and in the battle for power in Congress this fall.

About Therese Williams

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