Democrats Face Tough Choices as They Look to Shrink Safety Net Bill

WASHINGTON — Democrats are facing agonizing choices over what to keep and what to drop from their expansive $3.5 trillion social safety net package, as they labor to pacify the most conservative lawmakers in their ranks who have balked at its cost and scope.

With moderates and liberals feuding over competing priorities, Democrats have a variety of options for cutting the package down to size, from jettisoning proposed programs outright to curtailing them or using gimmicks to control their cost. But they have little room for error given their slim majorities in Congress, where they need the support of every Democrat in the Senate and all but a few in the House to deliver it to President Biden’s desk.

Top Democrats inched toward narrowing the differences in their ranks over the bill on Thursday, claiming progress on what they called a “framework agreement” on how to finance the plan. But they offered no details about what programs would be included or what the total cost would eventually be, and left crucial disagreements unresolved about which tax increases would be included, and how large they would be.

Among the issues at stake — even if the price tag remains at $3.5 trillion — are how long to maintain monthly payments to families with children, incentives for companies to transition to clean fuels, and the scale of tax increases for wealthy people and corporations.

“I’m not interested in checking a box and putting half as much money as is necessary to actually make an impact in people’s lives,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “The decisions will be tough, but I think we’d be better off to make the decisions, rather than to put a little money into everything.”

Hanging over the process are strict Senate rules about what can be included in the bill, which Democrats plan to push through using a fast-track process known as reconciliation that shields it from a filibuster but subjects it to stringent budgetary requirements.

Complicating matters further, key moderates who have called for a smaller package have yet to say how large a bill they could accept, or name their top priorities for inclusion.

Administration officials have said that the sheer scope of the bill serves as a sort of binding agent to keep their coalition together, offering something for everyone — moderates and progressives alike — and a range of programs that opinion polls show are popular with Americans across the political spectrum.

Mr. Biden, gathering nearly two dozen Democrats in the Oval Office this week, urged some of those moderates to outline for him what they were comfortable spending and what policies they wanted to prioritize. But at least two present — Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — have not yet publicly committed to a specific spending level they are willing to support.

Some liberal Democrats remain firmly wedded to the $3.5 trillion figure, brushing off questions about what compromise amount they would accept. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and chairman of the Budget Committee, took to the Senate floor to double down on that price tag and issue a reminder that he originally wanted nearly twice that much spending.

Democratic leaders tried on Thursday to quell some of the confusion by talking up their “framework agreement,” which appeared to be largely a list of tax proposals that have been made public by both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.

Aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the committees already saw eye to eye on a top income tax rate of 39.6 percent, a crackdown on tax-preferred conservation easements, and closing a loophole that can shield huge investment gains from taxation within an individual retirement account.

“It’s a memo; it’ll give us ample ability to pay for the level of investments that we — of course hasn’t been decided yet — that we choose to make,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. “It’s hardly conclusory, but it was a good step of progress.”

Party leaders hope to coalesce around a compromise on a total cost and the key components of the social safety net bill by Monday, when a vote is planned on a Senate-passed $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. Concerned that their more conservative-leaning colleagues may refuse to support the larger plan once the infrastructure measure is enacted, liberals have said they will withhold their votes for that bill until the so-called Build Back Better plan clears the Senate.

“It’s about values, not dollars,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at her weekly news conference. “Our goal is to have very specific priorities clearly presented.”

Part of the debate over the scope of the package is how much of the legislation should be devoted to existing programs, and how much to new initiatives.

“It’s about values, not dollars,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “Our goal is to have very specific priorities clearly presented.”Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

“My preference is to fully fund and expand existing programs that we know work rather than to build programs from scratch,” Representative Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida, said after meeting with Mr. Biden this week.

Some moderates have floated the possibility of restricting eligibility for certain programs, including free community college and some tax credits, to lower-income earners to whittle down their cost.

Democrats could also choose to shorten the duration of certain programs, another way to reduce the cost without sacrificing cherished priorities, a method they used to narrow the original $6 trillion price tag Mr. Sanders proposed. House and Senate Democrats both support extending expanded monthly payments to families with children to at least 2024, for example, but adding on an additional year would substantially increase the cost of the bill.

And placement of the end date on a program is a gamble, because there is no guarantee that future Congresses — particularly under Republican control — would be willing to keep funding it.

Democrats are currently confronting a similar situation over the debt ceiling: After a bipartisan vote to lift the limit on federal borrowing under the Trump administration, Republicans are now refusing to endorse similar legislation under a Democratic-controlled government.

“You have to be, but that’s the process of reconciliation more than anything else,” Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said this month when asked if he was concerned about setting up a series of deadlines that could ultimately be ignored. “It’s not based on philosophy.”

Coral Davenport, Jim Tankersley and Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.

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