As Democrats race to finish the President’s Build Back Better legislation before the Christmas recess and convince a skeptical West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, there are other obstacles piling up that could prevent them from meeting their self-imposed deadline.
With fewer than two weeks to go until the holiday break, Democrats haven’t finished legislative text, are still in a series of meetings with the Senate parliamentarian over whether the bill complies with Senate rules and are still negotiating elements of their own bill, with stiff disagreements brewing in their ranks over how to handle key provisions.
“I think there are technical and political reasons that they can’t do this next week, but I just don’t think they’ve come to that conclusion yet because they cannot afford to,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the Republican whip, told reporters. “They have to keep a stiff upper lip.”
Among the most contentious outstanding issues is how to address the state and local tax deduction, often short-handed as SALT.
The House of Representatives had increased how much in state and local taxes taxpayers could deduct on the federal return to $80,000. Yet in the Senate, negotiations continue over finding a way to cap which income levels would be eligible to deduct state and local taxes from their federal bills. The issue is a key one for Democrats from high-tax states like California, New Jersey and New York. But it’s become a huge messaging problem as Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, has argued that millionaires would benefit.
For weeks, Sanders and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey have tried to find a middle ground, but sources say they remain at an impasse, with some Democrats looking to allow families making more than $600,000 eligible for the deduction while others, like Sanders, have been arguing that number is far too high. Sanders had offered Democrats a provision that would allow couples making up to $400,000 to be eligible.
It’s just one of the issues Democrats are still working out and another reason that they could easily miss their self-imposed Christmas deadline, as it still remains unclear if the votes for the bill are there. Asked if the issue could be a reason for a delay into the new year, Sanders told CNN, “We’ll see.”
“I hope we will get to Build Back Better as soon as possible,” he said.
Democrats are also trying to finalize language over methane fees, a key negotiation on climate provisions that Manchin has been involved in.
Manchin has been negotiating for weeks with Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware. Sticking points have included when the program would start and when it would ramp up — as well as the levels of methane that companies could emit before paying fees to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Senators are also negotiating how the fee would interact with EPA methane regulations. Carper already added $775 million worth of grant money to help oil and gas producers comply with the fee.
On Tuesday, Carper told CNN that negotiations are nearly done, and he’s optimistic that Manchin will vote for the fee.
“I think most of the heavy lifting’s been done, I think we have a good compromise, and my hope and expectation is we’ll vote on it as part of a bigger package, and that it will be accepted,” Carper said.
Schumer still says it can be done
Behind the scenes and publicly, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has projected an impenetrable state of optimism about the Democratic caucus’s ability to unite and pass the bill, with colleagues saying they still believe it’s possible to finish the work even as obstacles have piled up.
“Our plan is still to do it by the time we leave,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. “I was on a leadership call this morning, and we were talking details about how to get it done in time before December 25.”
Some Democrats have even argued they want to stay in Washington through the holiday to finish it.
“We’ll stay here until we get it done,” Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois said. “I want to stay until it’s done.”
Technical challenges remain
But it’s not just a matter of will or finishing up a few sticking points that could slow the process.
Democrats are also still scrambling to finish a series of meetings with the Senate parliamentarian over climate, prescription drug, immigration and other provisions to ensure that all of them comply with the strict rules that govern which legislation is eligible to pass through a special budget process with just 51 votes. If anything is struck out or deemed unworkable, Democrats will need to rewrite their legislation, which could take time.
One of those question marks is whether Democrats will need to make changes to their prescription drug pricing provision that already passed the House.
In the House bill, Democrats found a compromise that would allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies on a handful of high-cost prescription drugs. But the Democrats’ plan also would require drug makers to pay rebates to the federal government if they raise the cost of many drugs faster than the rate of inflation. The rebate provision in the House bill would apply to price increases in both Medicare and private insurance plans, including job-based coverage. Republicans have challenged it, with the parliamentarian arguing that extending the rebate provision to commercial health insurance plans has nothing to do with the country’s underlying budget, a requirement to use the special rules of the Senate that allow certain bills to pass with just 51 votes.
Even if the bill were to be finalized and ready to go to the floor by next week, there aren’t guarantees the votes would be there.
Manchin has been working closely with President Joe Biden to find a way forward, but he’s expressed concerns about the timing of the bill and the impact it could have on the economy at a moment when the country is looking at rising inflation.
Once the bill goes to the floor, senators will also have to endure a lengthy budget vote-a-rama, a process that will take many hours and require dozens of controversial amendment votes that Republicans will use to force Democrats into challenging political positions ahead of the midterm elections next fall.
That process alone could take up to two days or as long as senators can stand it.
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