With Broad Safety Net Bill Stalled, Democrats Weigh What to Salvage

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s concession this week that his marquee social safety net and climate package must be broken apart to have any hope of becoming law reignited a debate among Democrats over which pieces of the plan to prioritize as they work to salvage it.

After spending much of last year thinking about how ambitious the measure they called Build Back Better could be, Democrats have pivoted hard in recent days, beginning to contemplate a far narrower bill tailored to meet the demands of Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, whose rejection of the broader, $2.2 trillion measure abruptly halted it in its tracks in December.

The conversations have centered on elements of the package that Mr. Manchin had previously indicated that he supported, including universal prekindergarten, a $500 billion package to address climate change, and a measure to lower the cost of prescription drugs. And some Democrats have discussed prioritizing expanded Affordable Care Act subsidies.

“What the president calls chunks, I would hope would be a major bill going forward,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters on Thursday. “It may be more limited, but it is still significant.”

The discussions are at an early stage, and Mr. Manchin warned on Thursday that they had a long way to go, saying any such talks would be starting with “a clean sheet of paper.”

He suggested Congress should first address the national debt, inflation and the ongoing toll of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Get your financial house in order, get this inflation down, get Covid out of the way, and then we’ll be rolling,” Mr. Manchin said on Thursday, reiterating his longstanding concerns about rising inflation and the ballooning national debt. “I want to see what’s feasible — what we can do in a reasonable, feasible way.”

The comments underscored the laborious path forward for Democrats to craft a substantially smaller package. Given the evenly divided Senate, the party is attempting to pass the legislation using a streamlined process known as budget reconciliation, which shields fiscal legislation from a filibuster, allowing it to pass with a simple majority.

Mr. Biden’s remarks on Wednesday about breaking up the bill raised the question of how Democrats would push forward with that strategy and whether some liberals who have grown frustrated with the stalled process would support losing more priorities. The $2.2 trillion plan that passed the House in late November had already been cut down substantially from a $3.5 trillion blueprint to appease Mr. Manchin and another centrist Democrat, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

“I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later,” Mr. Biden said at a news conference on Wednesday, adding that he was confident that “big chunks” of the plan could become law.

President Biden conceded this week that the Build Back Better Act would have to be broken apart to have any hope of becoming law.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Democrats are also discussing ways to address Mr. Manchin’s objections to a proposal that would provide expanded monthly payments to most families with children, which was established as part of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief law enacted last year. The payments helped keep millions of children out of poverty, and were widely used to help pay for rent, food and other essentials, but lapsed in December without congressional action.

Options include putting new restrictions on those payments, like limiting the amount and what households are eligible. Mr. Biden, however, conceded on Wednesday that he was not sure he would be able to preserve that tax credit, given Mr. Manchin’s reservations.

A smaller package would force Democrats to make painful policy choices they have so far tried to avoid, and could alienate rank-and-file lawmakers whose votes they would need to pass the plan with slim majorities in both chambers. And because of the strict rules governing reconciliation, Democrats essentially have one clear remaining chance to push a major bill through before the midterm elections.

While some lawmakers and aides have raised the possibility of forcing stand-alone votes on individual pieces of the package, it is unlikely that enough Republicans would support any of that legislation, leaving it short of the 60 votes needed to move it past a filibuster. Republicans have remained unanimously opposed to the plan since Mr. Biden first sketched it out just under a year ago.

“The one thing I’m not going to do is lament the pieces that we didn’t get in and call that a failure,” said Representative Cindy Axne of Iowa, one of the Democratic lawmakers facing a tough re-election in November. “I’m encouraged by the fact that the public knows that this is still a huge priority.”

Some Democrats hope that the failure to pass a voting rights overhaul this week could help smooth the legislative path ahead for the domestic policy plan, with lawmakers eager to show more evidence of what a Democrat-controlled Washington could accomplish.

“I have been saying that once we got through this kind of moment on voting rights that we need to shift back, and we need to figure out what we have 50 votes to pass,” said Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota. “We need to pass it and not wait around.”

Any effort to swiftly pass a deal may be further complicated by the need to negotiate a catchall spending deal with Republicans to keep the government open beyond Feb. 18.

“I’ll be interested to hear how the White House wants us to prioritize this — my worry is that this is our last window to get an appropriations bill done,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut.

Top lawmakers in both chambers have resumed the spending talks in recent weeks. Asked whether an effort to revive the social policy plan might derail those negotiations, Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it probably would.

He added: “It takes the oxygen out of the air.”

Other senators involved in spending discussions suggested that they might get a boost from an effort among some lawmakers to provide more pandemic relief to counter the toll of the latest coronavirus variant and offer further support to restaurants, hospitals and other institutions.

“I could see where some sort of Covid relief package is maybe kind of a sidecar on the bigger bill,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri. He said that he had spoken briefly to Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, about the issue in recent weeks, but the administration has not formally requested emergency funding.

“I think the bigger opportunity is just the fact that there’s no obvious work on the floor,” Mr. Blunt said. “And this is something we have to do.”

Carl Hulse contributed reporting.

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