Dems race to renovate Biden's domestic-policy foundation

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The Democratic Party is desperately trying to figure out just how solid Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending framework really is.

Different factions of the party are arguing that the outline the president presented this week is not final, hoping to add back in still-disputed provisions on immigration reform, taxes, Medicare expansion, paid leave and prescription drug prices before the social spending package gets a vote.

The House has already released hundreds of pages of legislation to fully articulate Biden’s vision, the bulk of it devoted to climate change action and the social safety net. Yet even after the House passes its version of the bill, which could happen as soon as next week, some Democrats insist that it’s not the final word.

“This deal is not done until the Senate acts,” said Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who still wants to add a billionaire tax to the bill that now includes a surtax on ultra high-income wage earners. “There’s a significant amount still to do.”

The reality of a 50-50 Senate and a three-vote House majority may complicate those efforts significantly. Several Democrats said that other than the ongoing negotiations on Medicare and tax relief for high-cost states, the current deal may be as good as they are going to get with moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said the bill’s contours may change, but “not dramatically.”

“There are, of course, dozens of proposals that folks are going to make a last-ditch effort to add to it,” Coons said. “But what we needed is a path forward and a package that everyone could get behind. I think the president’s accomplished that.”

The smorgasbord of opinions about what’s truly up for negotiation demonstrates why House progressives balked at passing the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill this week — and why that logjam may not clear anytime soon. As long as it’s not clear that the deal is essentially unchangeable, Manchin and Sinema may decide they don’t need to publicly bless it. And until they do give their blessing, Democrats feel little need to stop the attempted horse-trading.

“If senators are able to come to a decision that is better with 50 votes, we welcome it, and they should do that work,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the Congressional Progressive Caucus leader who met with Sinema on Thursday. “Senators are actually texting me to say they still want to negotiate.”

House Democrats promised to try to both wrap up negotiations on the spending package and finally pass the $550 billion infrastructure bill next week. But some senior Democrats are skeptical that can happen, particularly with major outstanding issues like immigration yet to be resolved in the social spending talks.

And many are pining for more clarity from the Senate’s two Democratic moderates, who have cut down the bill’s size and reshaped its tax regime. Their assurances may not be forthcoming anytime soon.

A Sinema spokesperson said in a statement that he had “nothing to add beyond Senator Sinema’s” Thursday indication of warmth for the framework, directing further questions toward the White House.

Manchin called the deal “the product of months of negotiations and input from all members of the Democratic Party who share a common goal” but has declined to explicitly bless it — even though he and Sinema both negotiated it and have told Senate colleagues they support it. His office did not comment for this story.

House Democrats haven’t really heard "any sort of commitments in what the Senate is actually going to be able to pass,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “There is openness and willingness to negotiate and what that certainty looks like, but we need a little bit more than an IOU.”

Democrats are already gaming out what happens if the House passes one social spending bill that the upper chamber insists on amending. Senate leaders are warning against passing bills that spark major disagreements as the year winds to a close and focus begins shifting toward Democrats’ uphill slog at defending their congressional majorities.

"It’s possible” that the Senate could amend a House-passed social spending measure, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the party’s No. 4 leader. “I don’t see that happening in any radical way. there could be some tweaks or fine tuning."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told his colleagues on Thursday that the House’s final party-line social spending bill will be ready next week, in time to address technical or procedural issues. Importantly, the Senate parliamentarian could still object to specific provisions in the bill and send Democrats back to the drawing board — a major obstacle to Democratic immigration efforts in particular.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is insisting on some sort of protections for undocumented immigrants in the social spending bill. But the parliamentarian has twice rejected similar efforts this year, raising doubts about whether it’s even possible.

And there’s a reason that prescription drug reform hasn’t been included: Democrats are at each others’ throats over what to include. Sinema negotiated a scaled-down drug bill with Biden, but House Democrats rejected it as far too limited to follow through on the party’s promises.

Those discussions continue, and top Senate Democrats said privately that prescription drug reform is the most likely big-ticket item that can get added into the deal in the coming days. Another top contender for restoration in the final bill is a bigger state and local tax deduction, colloquially known as SALT.

As for everything else on peoples’ wish lists? Well, there will be plenty of opportunities to amend any bill the House passes during the Senate vote-a-rama that’s required during the bill’s floor consideration.

But some Democrats say their party has already pushed its threadbare majorities nearly as far as they can go.

“My impression is it’s not going to change a lot,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). He added that prescription drugs will be “the most interesting topic of discussion over the next 24 to 48 hours … I hope that there are still adjustments that can be made here.”

Heather Caygle, Marianne LeVine, Olivia Beavers and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.