A deal within reach, President Joe Biden and Congress’ top Democrats edged close to sealing their giant domestic legislation, as they worked to scale back the measure and determine how to pay for it. The bill, which was originally proposed at a $3.5 trillion figure and contained funding for paid family leave, education and climate programs, has been paired with a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which received widespread bipartisan support when it passed the Senate earlier this summer.
“I do think I’ll get a deal,” Biden told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday night during a Town Hall Meeting, strongly signaling his belief that progressives and moderates, two wings of the Democratic caucus that have been at odds with one another, are reaching an accord on the Build Back Better bill, a sweeping bill that aims to expand the social safety net.
Biden’s town hall capped off what has been the most momentous week of negotiation in months, with the president acquiescing to losing some key programs from his initial $3.5 trillion wish list, in order to meet those moderates calling for less government spending. The acknowledgement of the concessions could send a signal to Democrats that a deal on the package, which has been whittled from Biden’s $3.5 trillion wish list to just under $2 trillion, is imminent.
The two pieces of legislation crucial to Biden’s agenda have been stalled as moderates and progressives have haggled over the price tag of the Build Back Better bill — which requires no Republican support thanks to the Senate’s budget reconciliation process — and the order in which both bills would be passed.
“We’re down to four or five issues,” Biden said of the ongoing negotiations, but did not detail what those issues are. “I think we can get there. It’s all about compromise,” Biden said, adding: “Compromise has become a dirty word, but … bipartisanship and compromise still has to be possible.”
In order to reach an accord, the size of the sweeping 10-year spending plan has been whittled down to somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 trillion, and President Biden laid out Thursday evening what’s in it — and, importantly, what’s not. For instance, the paid leave provision has been reduced to four weeks from the originally proposed 12 weeks. “It is down to four weeks,” Biden confirmed. “The reason it’s down to four weeks is I can’t get 12 weeks.”
Biden also noted that it might be a “reach” to include dental and vision coverage in Medicare, a progressive priority opposed by moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., one of the key centrist senators in the caucus. Though Biden detailed Manchin’s opposition to a number of the bill’s programs, including that he “has indicated that they will not support free community college,” another of the bill’s provisions, the president called him “a friend.”
“Joe is not a bad guy,” Biden said. “He is a friend. He has always at the end of the day come around and voted.” Biden noted that “one other person” indicated they would not support the free community college provision, and said that Democrats are looking into expanding Pell grants to help bridge the gap. “It’s not going to get us the whole thing,” Biden said, but noted that he would be forging ahead with his free college education plans in the coming months.
“I’m gonna get it done,” Biden pledged. “And if I don’t, I’m going to be sleeping alone for a long time,” referring to his wife, first lady Dr. Jill Biden, an educator and staunch education advocate. Of fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Biden also had kind words – “She’s as smart as the devil” – praising her support for some of the bill’s economic proposals.
He did, however, note that Sinema is “not supportive where she says she won’t raise a single penny in taxes on the corporate side and on wealthy people.” Biden said that in an evenly divided Senate, every senator’s vote is crucial: “Look, in the United States Senate, when you have 50 Democrats, every one is the president.”
President Biden noted the importance of combatting climate change, calling it “the existential threat to humanity” and pledging that he will debut his plans to get to “net zero emissions” at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of the month.
Biden touted the fact that on his first day in office, he rejoined the Paris climate accord, and said that he is “presenting a commitment to the world that we will in fact get to net zero emissions on electric power by 2035 and net zero emissions across the board by 2050 or before.” “But we have to do so much between now and 2030 to demonstrate what we’re going to do,” he pledged. The president also said that corporations must pay their fair share of taxes. The U.S., Biden said, is “in a circumstance where corporate America is not paying their fair share.”
“I come from the corporate state of the world: Delaware,” Biden said. “More corporations in Delaware than every other state in the union combined. Okay? Now, here’s the deal, though. You have 55 corporations, for example, in the United States of America making over $40 billion, don’t pay a cent. Not a single little red cent. Now, I don’t care — I’m a capitalist. I hope you can be a millionaire or billionaire. But at least pay your fair share. Chip in a little bit.”
Bided added that corporate leaders know “they should be paying a little more” in taxes. “They know they should be paying a little more than 21% because the idea that if you’re a school teacher and a firefighter you’re paying at a higher tax rate than they are as a percentage of your taxes.”
Biden met at the White House on Friday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer joined by video call from from New York, trying to shore up details. The leaders have been working with party moderates and progressives to shrink the once-$3.5 trillion, 10-year package to around $2 trillion in child care, health care and clean energy programs.
Pelosi said a deal was “very possible.” She told reporters back at the Capitol that more than 90% of the package was agreed to: The climate change components of the bill “are resolved,” but outstanding questions remained on health care provisions.
No agreement was announced by Friday’s self-imposed deadline to at least agree on a basic outline. Biden wants a deal before he leaves next week for global summits in Europe. Pelosi hoped the House could start voting as soon as next week, but no schedule was set.
Sticking points appear to include proposed corporate tax hikes to help finance the plan and an effort to lower prescription drug costs that has raised concerns from the pharmaceutical industry. Democrats are in search of a broad compromise between the party’s progressives and moderates on the measure’s price tag, revenue sources and basic components.
At the White House, the president has “rolled up his sleeves and is deep in the details of spreadsheets and numbers,” press secretary Jen Psaki said. Vice President Kamala Harris sounded even more certain. On a visit to New York City, she said tensions often rise over final details but “I am confident, frankly — not only optimistic, but I am confident that we will reach a deal.”