Updated on: Saturday, October 02, 2021, 12:28 AM IST

Democrats struggle to save Biden $3.5T bill, no deal struck



Despite a long night of frantic negotiations, Democrats were still struggling late Thursday to reach a deal on President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion government overhaul. Late-night votes were called off, with action to resume Friday.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi had pushed the House into an evening session as Democratic leaders worked to negotiate a scaled-back plan centrist holdouts would accept. But it appeared no immediate deal was within reach after hours of top White House aides shuttling across the Capitol between the offices of Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

Manchin refused to budge, holding fast to his earlier declaration that he was willing to meet the president less than halfway - $1.5 trillion.

"I don't see a deal tonight. I really don't," Manchin told reporters as he left the Capitol.

Deeply at odds, the president and his party are facing a potentially embarrassing setback - if not politically devastating collapse of the whole enterprise - if they cannot resolve the standoff over Biden's big vision.

At immediate risk was a promised vote on the first piece of Biden's proposal, a slimmer $1 trillion public works bill that is widely supported but has faltered amid stalled talks on his more ambitious package. Progressives were refusing to back the roads-and-bridges bill they view as insufficient unless there's progress on Biden's broader plan that's the heart of the Democratic agenda. With support, leaders cancelled a promised Thursday night vote, and said the House would be back in session Friday. Pelosi called it a "day of progress" in a letter to colleagues, but offered few other words on the path forward.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki released a statement saying: "A great deal of progress has been made this week, and we are closer to an agreement than ever. But we are not there yet, and so, we will need some additional time to finish the work, starting tomorrow morning first thing." The political stakes could hardly be higher. Biden and his party are reaching for a giant legislative accomplishment - promising a vast rewrite of the nation's tax and spending plans - with a so-slim majority in Congress.

The president's sweeping proposal topped at $3.5 trillion would essentially raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy and plow that money back into government health care, education and other programs, all of it touching the lives of countless Americans. He says the ultimate price tag is zero, because the tax revenue covers the spending costs.

With Biden working the phones and top White House officials shuttling at the Capitol, talk swirled of the Democratic leaders trying to ease off the stalemate by reaching a broader deal, a compromise with Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two centrist Democrats who are the linchpins to Biden's goals.

The idea was to produce the contours of an agreement over Biden's broader package, proceed with the $1 trillion public works bill and negotiate the rest of Biden's big health care, education and climate change bill in the days to come. Lawmakers were told to stick around for possible late-night votes.

But as the night dragged on, it became clear that Manchin was not on board with a higher figure and chiseling away at that $3.5 trillion topline risked losing progressive leaders who said they have already compromised enough and saw no reason to rush a deal to bring the centrists around to supporting the president's agenda.

"We've been fighting for transformative legislation as all of you know, these discussions have gone on for month after month after month," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Budget Committee and a leading progressive lawmaker. "This is not a baseball game. This is the most significant piece of legislation in 70 years." All this on a day that saw a partial win for Democrats, with Congress passing and Biden signing legislation to keep the government running past Thursday's fiscal yearend deadline and avert a federal shutdown that had been threatened by Republican blockades.

The public works bill is one piece of that broader Biden vision, a $1 trillion investment in routine transportation, broadband, water systems and other projects bolstered with extra funding. It won bipartisan support in the Senate but has now become snared by the broader debate.

Attention remains squarely focused on Manchin and Sinema, two centrist Democrats who helped steer that bipartisan bill to passage, but have concerns that Biden's overall bill is too big. The two senators have infuriated colleagues by not making any counter-proposals public.

Under scrutiny, Manchin called an impromptu press conference Thursday outside the Capitol, insisting he has been clear from the start.

"I'm willing to sit down and work on the $1.5," Manchin told reporters, as protesters seeking a bigger package and Biden's priorities chanted behind him.

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Published on: Saturday, October 02, 2021, 12:28 AM IST