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Democrats rush to reach deal on social spending plan before Biden trip to Europe

Climate summit raises stakes for Biden agenda
Democrats racing to reach deal infrastructure and budget bills as climate summit approaches 08:36

Washington — Democratic lawmakers had nothing but praise for President Biden, who met with a number of House members Tuesday as he tries to steer them toward a deal to move his domestic agenda, but despite the optimism, there's no deal yet.

The president and top White House aides met with House lawmakers Tuesday afternoon one member who was among those who met with Mr. Biden described him as a "master negotiator" who is "building momentum to get this done." 

One of the key meetings the president held took place Tuesday evening, with moderate Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, whose support is crucial to the passage of the bill that would expand the social safety net. This and the bipartisan infrastructure measure which is being held up in the House by progressives until there's a deal on the other bill, contain most of the president's domestic agenda. 

The president has been working to convince lawmakers that for now, they'll have to give up  some provisions in order to move forward. 

"He's trying to get us all to yes with a deep understanding that the perfect isn't the enemy of the good," the member said. As has been the case with prior meetings and calls with Mr. Biden, Tuesday's conversation was not one that delved into the "details of the policy." Instead, "this was an optimistic reframing to build the momentum to get to yes."

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are racing to try to overcome divisions in their caucus over paid leave, an expansion of Medicare benefits and the means of paying for the legislation.

Disagreements remain among Democrats over key aspects of the legislation, complicating Democratic leaders' goals of reaching a deal on the details of the package before Mr. Biden leaves the country to attend a Group of 20 conference in Rome and a United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26.

"This is an urgent moment to strengthen President Biden's hand on the world stage, and I understand and respect they have concerns that they're negotiating around, but to go to the G20 and to go to COP26 in Glasgow without progress on the deal would be to miss a critical opportunity," Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware told reporters of his colleagues.

To address concerns from moderate Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Sinema, party leaders have already scaled down the measure's price tag from $3.5 trillion to roughly $2 trillion over 10 years. Mr. Biden also said last week his plan for free community college is likely to be stripped from the package, and a proposal for 12 weeks of paid family leave may be trimmed to four weeks.

While key pieces of the plan are being scaled down or removed altogether, the White House and Democratic leaders are urging lawmakers to back the package, arguing they should seize the opportunity to pass what party leaders say is "transformational legislation." 

In the meantime, Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the plan Tuesday, and afterward, she told reporters she still wants the bipartisan infrastructure and reconciliation bills to be voted out together — on the same day. Jayapal maintained she and dozens of caucus members won't vote for the infrastructure bill with only a framework agreement for the social spending bill in place. That bill has no Republican support and will only be able to pass if every Democrat in the Senate backs it.

Democrats also remain at odds over other aspects of the sweeping plan, including an expansion of Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing. 

Manchin has expressed concerns over the solvency of the program, and Mr. Biden said during a CNN town hall last week that the West Virginia senator opposes expanding Medicare. 

But Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who votes with the Democrats, told reporters on Capitol Hill that the package must include the program's expansion.

"Any reconciliation bill must include serious negotiations on the part of Medicare with the pharmaceutical industry, lower the cost of prescription drugs. That's what the American people want," he said. "Any serious reconciliation bill must include expanding Medicare to cover dental, hearing aids and eyeglasses."

Manchin also opposes some of the climate provisions contained in the package, and he scuttled a proposed $150 billion "clean energy performance program," which would pay utility companies that increase their renewable energy supplies by 4% per year.

But the West Virginia senator has projected optimism that Democrats could reach an agreement on the framework for their social spending plan this week, though he reiterated Monday that he backs a price tag of $1.5 trillion, lower than Mr. Biden's proposed topline figure of around $2 trillion.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to roll out a proposal for a tax on billionaires to raise revenue to pay for the social spending plan after Sinema opposed raising taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richie Neal expressed skepticism Monday about the billionaires tax.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday, "All I can say is we're moving forward. We're making progress, and we hope to come to an agreement with some degree of alacrity."

Alan He, Ellis Kim and Allyson Ross Taylor contributed to this report.

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