Democrats Face Time Crunch as They Race to Finalize Biden Plan

The Hill

December 13, 2021 6:01 am

Democrats are hitting a make-or-break week in their ambitious effort to pass President Biden‘s climate and social spending bill by Christmas. 

Democrats have just 10 days to meet their self-imposed deadline and face growing headaches that could prevent them from meeting their goal. New concerns about record inflation, procedural steps that have to be completed before they can take the bill to the Senate floor and ongoing negotiations even after months of talks are among the obstacles.

“If I get out of here by the evening of the 24th I’ll be very happy,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) about the upcoming holiday slog. 

In a sign of progress, Democrats last week released text from five of the 12 committees tasked with writing pieces of the roughly $2 trillion bill and incomplete draft language from the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees broad swaths of the legislation

And they are hoping to ramp up formal talks this week with the Senate parliamentarian, who offers guidance on if key pieces Democratic policy goals comply with the strict rules on what can be included in the spending bill.

“We anticipate that the bipartisan ‘Byrd bath’ — where both sides get together and make their case to the parliamentarian and argue back and forth — we expect those to start next week,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Republicans say they are still waiting to receive pieces of the bill text, which they need for their own meetings with Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, from Democrats. Once both sides meet one-on-one, they then have a formal meeting with MacDonough together, where they both make their cases on why the bill does, or doesn’t, comply with the Senate’s budget rules, which Democrats are using to bypass the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

“We don’t even have language on some of it yet. You’ve got scoring issues. They’re trying to substantively change it,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator. 

Democrats need sign off from MacDonough before they bring the bill to the floor, making the talks with the Senate referee a major hurdle. Democrats had hoped to have them wrapped up by this week, but the talks appear to be running behind.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said that he was feeling optimistic about the timeline “if things are on schedule” with the parliamentarian. 

“That could hold us up, there’s no doubt about that,” he added.

Democrats have scrambled for weeks to try to make space to make a run at the bill before the end of the year. They entered December with a lengthy to-do list and have already checked off two items: funding the government and approving a one-time exemption to the debt ceiling.

They are expected to spend this week completing two other items: raising the debt ceiling and passing a sweeping defense policy bill. That will position Democrats by the end of the week to have a clear floor schedule to try to pass the Build Back Better Act by Christmas.

Democrats have both political and policy reasons to want to get the bill done this year. They are loath to kick the can to 2022, a midterm election year where typically little significant legislation gets accomplished. And the longer the bill stays in limbo, the longer Republicans can target it and key Democrats, whose support will be needed to get it to Biden’s desk.

Democrats are also barreling toward a cliff on the child tax credit, which is set to expire at the end of the year. Aides warn that they need to pass the Build Back Better legislation, or a short-term extension, by Dec. 28, or January payments could be disrupted.

“You need to pass Build Back Better that continues the program by Dec. 28. … That’s what I’m working on. That is my focus,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).But Democrats are still locked in a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations, raising questions about how quickly they’ll be able to finalize a bill and lock in all 50 Democratic votes.

Neither Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) nor Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have said yet that they support the bill, and both have privately predicted it won’t be ready to pass by Christmas. 

Democrats have made changes to the bill to try to win over Manchin, including dropping a program meant to incentivize the transition to clean energy. Other portions of the bill, including a paid leave program, could also fall amid opposition from Manchin.

Manchin, in particular, has been up front about his concerns, including warning against rushing the bill and questioning the potential impact on inflation. Democrats and the White House have tried to assuage him by arguing that the bill won’t negatively impact inflation.

“We’ve got to make sure we get this right. We can’t afford to continue to flood the market as we’ve done,” Manchin said at an event last week.

Wyden acknowledged that the pieces of text released by the Finance Committee don’t yet have Manchin’s buy-in but said he’s in constant contact with his conservative colleague. Wyden also still needs to get his chunk of the spending bill cleared by the Senate parliamentarian.

“Sen. Manchin and I talk essentially every day. He and I, we talk about energy, we talk about taxes. We talk about all kinds of things,” Wyden said.

Biden is expected to meet with Manchin this week. Biden told reporters on Friday that he wasn’t sure he would be able to convince Manchin to support passing Build Back Better given the inflation data.

“I don’t know the answer to that. I’m going to be talking to him at the beginning of the week,” Biden said.

Despite the hurdles, Schumer is sticking by the Dec. 25 deadline as he tries to keep the pressure on his own caucus.

“We remain on schedule to bring this bill to the floor of the Senate before Dec. 25,” Schumer said.

Republicans are predicting that Democrats ultimately will be forced to punt the bill until at least January and that the Senate will leave town by the end of this week.

“There is no way they are going to be ready to vote on their bill,” Thune said. “The sooner, I think, they come to that realization the better it will be for everybody. … They probably need to nip that fairly soon because it’s just not going to practically happen.”

But Democrats insist they are making progress behind closed doors.