Slow progress on budget package with deadline weeks away

Some lawmakers say Oct. 31 deadline may not be feasible

“Every time we set a timeframe and all that, we screw ourselves,” Hawaii Sen. Mazie K. Hirono says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
“Every time we set a timeframe and all that, we screw ourselves,” Hawaii Sen. Mazie K. Hirono says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 8, 2021 at 5:00am

As the Senate headed into a weeklong recess, Democrats showed little sign they were making progress on their economic agenda other than clearing the must-pass measures competing for their time. 

Last week’s enactment of a government funding stopgap through Dec. 3 and the $480 billion debt ceiling boost that will punt the deadline for another increase by a few months will allow the Democrat-controlled Congress to spend the remainder of the fall focused on passing President Joe Biden’s social and climate spending and tax package. 

But as Democratic leaders eye an end-of-month deadline for passing the sweeping package through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process, the party has yet to agree on a framework for a scaled-down version of the bill that both moderate and progressive Democrats can support. 

“We’re working hard, we’re making progress, and we’re shooting to get it done by Oct. 31,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters after a closed-door lunch Thursday at which Democrats discussed the reconciliation package. 

Democrats are expecting to cut their original plan for $3.5 trillion in new spending and tax cuts to around $2 trillion to accommodate centrist lawmakers’ concerns, but they have yet to settle on a new topline. 

[Biden plays for time on infrastructure, larger budget package]

Senators spent the week dodging questions about what may be cut from the package, and several left Thursday’s lunch feeling as though there was consensus to try to keep every major initiative in the bill.

Democrats want the package to fund universal prekindergarten; child care and home health care subsidies; paid family and medical leave; free community college; climate programs and tax incentives; expansions of Medicare and Medicaid; and extensions of more generous tax credits for health insurance and family costs.

“I’d like to see all of the different provisions funded at some level,” Hawaii Sen. Mazie K. Hirono said. 

Most Democrats agree with that strategy, saying they would prefer to shorten the duration of programs, allowing them to lapse after a few years, instead of cutting them altogether. But lawmakers are also trying to avoid having too many incongruous start dates and sunsets on programs that they’ve largely designed to work together to help provide financial stability to low- and middle-income families.

“We’d like to have [them] go long as we can, based upon the resources we have,” Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said. “But we recognize that, as a pragmatic need, we’re going to have to shorten it, and we want to show some consistency among the programs.”

Fellow Marylander Chris Van Hollen said Democrats may have to “streamline” or “modify” some programs since shortening the duration alone is unlikely to get them to their $2 trillion target range. 

“There are various options, and they’re very practical and doable, and they involve essentially retaining all of the basic programs because they meet important needs,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal added.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Democrats had a long discussion during Thursday’s lunch about the importance of making “real investments” in programs that would combat climate change, as well as “making changes in our tax structure that are not going to cost us money."

Climate is one of the top areas in which progressive Democrats don’t want to see cuts.

“We cannot slash climate funding in this package,” Sen. Edward J. Markey said Thursday morning at an event outside the Capitol on Thursday. 

The Massachusetts Democrat called for the final package to include a Civilian Climate Corps intended to put Americans to work fighting climate change; a clean electricity standard to push utilities toward renewable energy sources; and a tax code overhaul to promote clean energy while eliminating “outdated, unnecessary” fossil fuel incentives.

Markey made clear that he opposes energy programs that continue to incentivize natural gas, even as one of the key Senate holdouts, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, has opposed penalties for production of coal and natural gas and has demanded climate change initiatives be “fuel neutral.” 

Manchin also reiterated Wednesday that he’s not budged from his $1.5 trillion ceiling for the package, which progressives have rejected as too low. Manchin met with Biden at the White House on Thursday and told reporters afterward it was a “good meeting” but declined to comment further.

Virtual meetings

Biden held virtual meetings earlier in the week with House lawmakers who were not in legislative session this week. He talked to a group of progressives Monday and a group of lawmakers considered vulnerable for reelection on Tuesday. After meeting with the latter, the president suggested a compromise would likely involve funding some programs now and holding off on others for future legislation. 

“My objective is to get everything that I campaigned on passed eventually. It won’t all happen at once,” Biden told reporters. “But it doesn’t mean that’s the end of what’s in the rest of the package.”

But with many lawmakers not ready to concede that Thursday, it was clear Democrats are far from agreeing to a framework for the package, let alone text of the legislation.

Neither chamber is scheduled to be in legislative session next week, although the House may need to come in briefly to pass the short-term debt ceiling increase. 

Sen. Tim Kaine said the break from other legislative business could provide lawmakers time to have the difficult discussions needed to reach agreement on the topline for the reconciliation package and how that spending will be allocated among the primary programs. 

“Traditionally, what we do during the recess on something like this is, we spend a lot of time together, knocking our heads together to try to come up with a deal,” the Virginia Democrat said. “My hope would be that we could reach a handshake deal in the next 10 days.”

Despite some optimism, the few signs of progress this week led several senators to question whether the Oct. 31 deadline for passing the reconciliation package is feasible.

Oct. 31 is when a recently enacted 30-day extension of surface transportation programs expires, and House progressives say they won’t vote for a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill containing a five-year reauthorization unless the reconciliation package advances first.

“Every time we set a timeframe and all that, we screw ourselves,” Hirono said. “I’d like to get it done before we have to face the debt ceiling issue again. So I’d say October or November for myself.”

Laura Weiss, Mary Ellen McIntire, Joseph Morton, David Lerman and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.