WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Congress’ top two Democrats strategized Friday trying to wrap up their giant domestic legislation, as the party continued scaling back the measure and determining ways to pay for it after months of deadlock.
Biden had breakfast at the White House with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer joined in a Zoom call from New York. The leaders have been working with party moderates and progressives to shrink the once-$3.5 trillion, 10-year measure to around $2 trillion, and are moving toward trimming many of its climate change and social initiatives and tax changes.
Pelosi said a deal is “very possible.”
“We made progress,” Pelosi told reporters back at the Capitol.
She said the climate change components of the bill “are resolved,” but outstanding questions remain on health care provisions.
“Much of what we need to do has been written. Just a few decisions now,” Pelosi said.
Democrats have set an informal goal of having the party’s progressives and moderates reach agreement on an outline of the plan by the end of this week. A broad compromise on the measure’s price tag, revenue sources and basic components could lay the groundwork for final agreements on detailed legislation, leaders hope.
Democrats want to reach an accord on the legislation before Biden departs for a trip to Europe late next week.
“The green aspects of this, the climate aspects of it are urgent, and they are significant, and they are resolved,” Pelosi said. “In terms of the health care, we have a couple outstanding issues that just need a decision.”
The changes come as Biden more forcefully appeals to the American public, including in a televised town hall Thursday, for what he says are the middle-class values at the heart of his proposal.
Biden mentioned during the evening event the challenge he faces in wrangling the sharply divergent factions in the Democratic party to agree to the final contours of the bill. With an evenly divided Senate, he can’t afford to lose a single vote, and he is navigating the competing demands of progressives, who want major investments in social services, and centrists, who want to see the price tag on the package come down.
“When you’re president of the United States, you have 50 Democrats — every one is a president. Every single one. So you gotta work things out,” he said during a CNN town hall.
Still, he expressed optimism about the process, saying “I think so” when asked if Democrats were close to a deal.
“It’s all about compromise. Compromise has become a dirty word, but bipartisanship and compromise still has to be possible,” he said.
Biden later said the discussions are “down to four or five issues.”
On one issue — the taxes to pay for the package — the White House idea seemed to be making headway with a new strategy of abandoning plans for reversing Trump-era tax cuts in favor of an approach that would involve taxing the investment incomes of billionaires to help finance the deal.
Biden has faced resistance from key holdouts, in particular Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who has not been on board with her party’s plan to undo President Donald Trump’s tax breaks for big corporations or individuals earning more than $400,000 a year.
The president was unusually forthcoming Thursday night about the sticking points in the negotiations with Sinema and another key Democrat, conservative Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
While the president said Sinema “will not raise a single penny in taxes” on the wealthy or corporations, a White House official later clarified that the president was referring to raising the top tax rates, not the range of tax proposals “which Senator Sinema supports.”
If so, that could unlock a key piece of a deal. With a better understanding of the revenues available, Democrats can then develop a topline amount of spending for the package, and adjust the duration and sums for various programs accordingly.
Biden said Manchin doesn’t want to “rush” the transition to clean energy so quickly it will result in major job losses in his coal-producing state.
Even as he seemed encouraged by progress, Biden acknowledged major reductions to his original vision. He signaled the final plan would no longer provide free community college, but said he hoped to increase Pell Grants to compensate for the loss of the policy.
“It’s not going to get us the whole thing, but it is a start,” he said.
He also said that what had been envisioned as a federally paid, months-long family leave program would be just four weeks.
Biden and his party are trying to shore up middle-class households, tackle climate change and stem the trend toward rising income inequality.
In the mix are at least $500 billion to battle climate change, $350 billion for child care subsidies and free prekindergarten, a one-year extension of the $300 monthly child tax credit put in place during the COVID-19 crisis, and money for health care provided through the Affordable Care Act and Medicare.
The newly proposed tax provisions, though, are likely to sour progressives and even some moderate Democrats who have long campaigned on scrapping the Republican-backed 2017 tax cuts that many believe unduly reward the wealthy and cost the government untold sums in lost revenue at a time of gaping income inequality. Many are furious that perhaps a lone senator could stymie that goal.
Under existing law passed in 2017, the corporate tax rate is 21%. Democrats had proposed raising it to 26.5% for companies earning more than $5 million a year. The top individual income tax rate would go from 37% to 39.6% for those earning more than $400,000, or $450,000 for married couples.
Under the changes being floated the corporate rate would not change. But the revisions would not be all positive for big companies and the wealthy.
The White House is reviving the idea of a minimum corporate tax rate, similar to the 15% rate Biden had proposed this year. That’s even for companies that say they had no taxable income — a frequent target of Biden, who complains they pay “zero” in taxes.
The new tax on the wealthiest individuals would be modeled on legislation from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He has proposed taxing stock gains of people with more than $1 billion in assets — fewer than 1,000 Americans.
Democrats also want to add funding to provide dental, vision and hearing aid benefits to people on Medicare proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.