President Joe Biden informed House progressives Tuesday afternoon that the final bill to expand the social safety net is expected to drop tuition-free community college, a major White House priority, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.
And the President discussed a $1.75 to $1.9 trillion price tag for the sweeping spending package, according to a person familiar with the talks. While the number is not finalized, it is far closer to West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's $1.5 trillion top line than progressives' number, which was $3.5 trillion.
Joe Biden discusses $1.9 trillion top line for economic package and tells Democrats free community college is out
Moreover, he indicated that the child tax credit -- a key Democratic priority -- would likely be extended for one additional year, much shorter than what many in their party wanted, one of the sources said. The child tax credit will also likely be means tested, keeping with what Manchin had wanted.
Biden also indicated to the group that they would reduce the proposed funding for so-called homecare for the elderly and disabled -- down to less than $250 billion, sources said. Democrats had wanted to keep the funding at $400 billion.
The President told progressive lawmakers that negotiators are weighing reducing the duration of the paid leave benefit outlined in the package to four weeks, down from a proposed 12 weeks, according to three sources familiar with the meeting.
Democrats for several days have grappled with how to address Manchin's concerns over the scale of the program, according to multiple people involved, and have considered proposals to trim the total weeks of the program entirely, or to phase in the program over time, starting with a shorter duration and then expanding it over the course of a decade.
Biden had called for making two years of community college free -- a long-time priority for many Democrats. Some progressives -- like Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats -- have pushed for even more, calling for making tuition free at public, four-year colleges.
The President has highlighted the free college proposal in speeches across the country for months, telling one audience in July he was "insisting that we have universal pre-kindergarten (and) two years of free community college."
Biden, however, indicated the provision could be cut from the final plan late last week.
Speaking about his social safety net proposal at a child care center in Connecticut on Friday, the President said, "I don't know that I can get it done, but I also have proposed free community college, like you've done here in the state of Connecticut, to help students from lower-income families attend community college (and) four-year schools."
Former President Barack Obama proposed making community college free back in 2015, but it never happened on a federal level. Many blue and red states, as well as cities, have enacted some version of a law law making tuition free, but enacting the program at a federal level could have provided a much-needed jolt for two-year colleges, which saw a huge drop in enrollment during the coronavirus pandemic.
Democrats are debating what they should include after Manchin said he would oppose an electricity standard to force utilities to use cleaner-burning fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% over the next decade.
"There is a wide menu of options" to replace the policy, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a close Biden ally, told CNN. However, Democrats have not yet coalesced around one specific replacement for their clean energy plan.
Democrats have less than two weeks until the President is set to attend the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow. And while Biden did not explicitly set a deadline, he made clear in his meeting with Democrats that his goal was to have a locked-in framework agreement that would clear the way for a House vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before he arrives at the conference, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.
Khanna told Tapper that Biden "was focused on delivering something before he goes to Glasgow and he made a compelling case."
Democratic leaders have pressed lawmakers to have an agreement before October 31 in order to move the infrastructure bill before the expiration of the short-term surface transportation funding patch. But while the timelines roughly line up, Biden pressed progressives in the meeting to ensure he had an agreement in hand before his arrival at the climate conference, noting the stakes for the US if did not.
Biden pushes progressive and centrist Democrats closer to a deal on Build Back Better bill
“The president is more confident this evening about the path forward,” Psaki said. She noted that the discussions “focused around a shared commitment to the care economy, ensuring working families have more breathing room, addressing the climate crisis, and investing in industries of the future.”
While these four topics may sound like political speak, they hint at the specific proposals that Democrats are coalescing around, and just as importantly, which ones are likely to be left on the table.
For example, “the care economy” means childcare subsidies, universal preschool and in-home eldercare. It does not mean free community college, which was initially part of Biden’s agenda but which NBC News reported Tuesday is likely to be dropped from a final deal.
Giving working families “more breathing room” means federal paid parental leave and expanded Child Tax Credits. It does not mean allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies, however: Another proposal that could be set aside in order to win consensus among a fractured caucus.
Lastly, “addressing the climate crisis and investing in industries of the future” means funding new, clean, sources of renewable energy. What it does not mean is imposing fines on existing coal and gas fired power plants that do not meet government-set clean energy targets.
Tuesday’s discussions at the White House came as Democrats struggled to bridge deep divisions within their caucus over a massive bill to invest in the social safety net and climate policy, both core pieces of Biden’s domestic agenda.
The outcome of this week’s talks could determine not only whether the social safety net proposal gets through Congress, but also whether its companion legislation, a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate, garners a majority in the House.
Biden also met in the morning with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Like Manchin, Sinema is a moderate Democrat who has far refused to embrace the social safety net bill that makes up one half of Biden’s two-part domestic policy plan.
Progressives invited for a meeting that began at 2 p.m. ET included Reps. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Ritchie Torres of New York and Jimmy Gomez, Jared Huffman, Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee, all of California.
Following that meeting, Jayapal told reporters outside the White House that it was a “really good, productive meeting,” but she did not say whether any concrete decisions had been made.
A later meeting at 4:30 p.m. ET was attended by Sens. Catherine Cortez-Masto of Nevada, Jon Tester of Montana and Virginia’s Mark Warner. They were joined by California Reps. Ami Bera and Mike Thompson, Washington Rep. Suzan DelBene, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Tom O’Halleran of Arizona.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have said they want to pass both plans before the end of October. But with just 7 congressional working days left in the month, that deadline appears all but impossible to meet.
As of Tuesday, Democrats had not agreed on an overall price tag for their social spending plan, let alone written the specific legislation.
Biden initially proposed a $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” plan that would have included new child care subsidies, Medicare expansions, an increased Child Tax Credit, universal pre-K and two years of free community college, as well as broad investments in green energy.
But Biden’s plans have encountered stiff opposition from Sinema and Manchin, although for different reasons.
Manchin says he will not vote for more than $1.5 trillion in spending, a stance that puts him at odds with House progressives, who wanted to spend more than $3.5 trillion on the plan.
He has also signaled his opposition to a clean electricity standard that is at the heart of Biden’s green energy plan, and he has called for means testing several of the family benefit programs.
Sinema, meanwhile, has also objected to the top-line price tag of the bill. Yet Sinema’s specific concerns differ somewhat from Manchin’s.
Sinema has criticized some of the corporate tax hikes that Democrats say are crucial to paying for programs like family leave and universal preschool without ballooning the national debt.
She also opposes a key provision that would permit Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, a change that could sharply lower the cost of prescription drugs and save the government billions of dollars annually.
As Democrats struggle to bring down the overall cost of the domestic spending bill, they must hash out which programs must be cut entirely, which can be trimmed, and which should remain unaltered in final legislation.
The outcome of these negotiations will determine whether millions of Americans see a boost in federal benefits in the coming years.
They will also shape the long-term scope of the federal response to climate change, which has contributed to a wave of devastating fires and storms in the U.S. this year.
Manchin met separately on Monday with Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and with Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, the unofficial leader of a progressive bloc of Democratic senators.
West Virginia is one of the nation’s top producers of coal and natural gas, which helps to explain Manchin’s opposition to programs designed to cut back on fossil fuel dependence.
But he is also heavily invested in the coal industry himself. Manchin’s largest single source of income in 2020 was a coal consulting business he founded, which is now run by his son.
Joe Biden focuses on climate, families in trimmed $2T plan
Scaling down his “build back better” plans, President Joe Biden on Tuesday described a more limited vision to Democratic lawmakers of a $2 trillion government-overhaul package with at least $500 billion to tackle climate change and money for middle-class priorities — child tax credits, paid family leave, health care and free pre-kindergarten.
And he expects negotiations to wrap up as soon as this week.
The president met privately into the evening with nearly 20 centrist and progressive lawmakers in separate groups as Democrats appeared ready to abandon what had been a loftier $3.5 trillion package for a smaller, more workable proposal that can unite the party and win passage in the closely divided Congress.
Likely to be eliminated or seriously shaved back: plans for tuition-free community colleges, a path to legal status for immigrants who are in the U.S. without documentation, and a specific clean energy plan that was the centerpiece of Biden's strategy for fighting climate change.
The details were shared by those familiar with the conversation and granted anonymity to discuss the private meetings.
Biden felt “more confident” after the day of meetings, said press secretary Jen Psaki. “There was broad agreement that there is urgency in moving forward over the next several days and that the window for finalizing a package is closing,” she said.
After months of fits and starts, Democrats are growing anxious they have little to show voters despite their campaign promises. Biden’s ideas are all to be funded by tax hikes on corporations and the wealthiest individuals, those earning more than $400,000 a year.
The president especially wants to advance his signature domestic package to bolster federal social services and address climate change by the time he departs for a global climate summit next week.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a progressive caucus member, said Biden urged the lawmakers to “get something done now” to show U.S. leadership on climate change on the global stage.
"He really believes American leadership, American prestige is on the line,” Khanna said.
A key holdout on Biden's proposals, conservative Sen. Joe Manchin from coal-state West Virginia, has made clear he opposes the president's initial Clean Energy Performance Plan, which would have the government impose penalties on electric utilities that fail to meet clean energy benchmarks and provide financial rewards to those that do — in line with Biden's goal of achieving 80% “clean electricity” by 2030.
Instead, Biden focused in his Tuesday meetings on providing at least $500 billion in tax credits, grants and loans to fight climate change, much of it likely coming from a package compiled by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the the Finance Committee. Those include the tax breaks for energy producers that reach emission-reduction goals.
That clean energy approach could better align with Manchin’s stated goal of keeping a “fuel neutral” approach to federal policy that does not favor renewable energy sources over coal and natural gas that are dominant in his state.
Other climate-change-fighting proposals being considered are a tax on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels such as oil and coal or a methane emissions fee — though Manchin told reporters earlier in the day that a carbon tax was not in the mix.
Failure to act on climate change would have far-reaching consequences in the U.S. and abroad. Inaction, proponents of big efforts say, could cost the U.S. billions of dollars in weather-related disasters and threaten to uproot millions of Americans in hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and floods.
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., another progressive caucus member, called the opposition from Manchin on climate issues “one of the biggest challenges” threatening to stop a final bill.
On other fronts, Biden and the Democrats appeared to be more readily coalescing around a slimmed-down package.
Biden wants to extend the $300 monthly child tax credit that was put in place during the COVID-19 crisis for another year, rather than allow it to expire in December.
The policy has been praised for sending cash to families most in need. Democrats want to extend the credit for additional years, but limiting the duration would help shave the costs. It's now to be phased out for single-parent households earning more than $75,000 a year, or $150,000 for couples, but those income thresholds could be lowered to meet demands of Manchin and more conservative Democrats.
What had been envisioned as a months-long federal paid family leave program could be shrunk to as few as four weeks.
Biden also wants to ensure funding for health care programs, including new money for home- and community-based health care services, supporting a move away from widespread nursing home care.
And a new program to provide dental, vision and hearing aid benefits to seniors on Medicare proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, is likely to remain in some fashion, said Khanna, a longtime Sanders ally.
Expected to still be included in the package are new subsidies to help families afford child care as well as increased subsidies put in place during the pandemic for people who buy their own health insurance.
Biden told lawmakers that after his top priorities there would be $300 billion remaining, which some suggested could be used for housing aid and racial justice issues. Biden also mentioned money could go for retrofitting homes of low-income people.
But Biden's vision for free community college for all is falling by the wayside.
“It’s not the robust vision the president wants or that we wanted,” Khanna said.
At a lengthy and “lively” lunch of Democratic senators earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said there was "universal agreement in that room that we have to come to an agreement and we got to get it done.”
Schumer said he, Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are talking daily.
Biden met at the White House for nearly two hours with the first group of lawmakers, progressives, who emerged confident a deal was within reach. Moderate lawmakers met for about 90 minutes into the evening.
“Everybody’s talking,” said Manchin, who had his own meeting Tuesday with the president.
For months, Manchin and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have objected to the scope and scale of Biden's package, testing the patience of colleagues who see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape government programs. Sinema missed the senators lunch, but had a separate meeting with Biden.
With Republicans fully opposed to Biden’s plans, the president needs all Democrats in the 50-50 split Senate for passage and can only spare a few votes in the House.
Time slipping, Congress has set an Oct. 31 deadline for passage.