WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are expected to spend much of September negotiating the size and scope of a proposed $3.5 trillion budget bill that would fund a battery of new government programs.
It’s a negotiation whose outcome Ady Barkan sees as life or death.
The 37-year-old progressive advocate, who uses a wheelchair after being diagnosed with ALS in 2016, is pressuring Democrats to maintain hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending for home care services, arguing that cutting such funding from the legislation would devastate those who need the funding.
“What’s at stake with this funding is nothing less than human life,” Barkan said in an interview, communicating through an electronic device he controls with eye movement. “What’s at stake are the rights of seniors and disabled people in our country to live safely and with dignity. And, I mean, what’s at stake is also the ability of professional home care workers to earn a truly living wage, and live with dignity themselves.”
Barkan’s advocacy is part of a wave of pressure facing top Democrats as spending negotiations enter their final phase, much of it from liberal activists desperate to keep their priorities fully funded in the final legislation. On Capitol Hill and in the home states and districts of key lawmakers, they’re organizing campaigns and running ads that highlight the need for action on policies ranging from pandemic preparedness to combating climate change.
Complicating their efforts is a demand from some centrist Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, that negotiators lower the bill’s current $3.5 trillion price tag, a reduction that would squeeze how much lawmakers can allocate for each program.
This dynamic has left leading Democratic lawmakers and the White House in a difficult position, as they try to manage the competing pressures while ensuring that they are able to approve of legislation many of them would consider the centerpiece of Biden’s policy agenda.
“This can go one of two ways, like it did with us on health care and like it with us on taxes,” said Brendan Buck, a top aide to former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, referring to the GOP’s legislative efforts during former President Donald Trump’s tenure. “What I mean by that is: Does everybody realize you have to get this done? Or is everybody going to the mat fighting their case to the death, and having it fall apart?”
PRESSURE FROM THE LEFT
Members of Congress are negotiating the proposed $3.5 trillion budget plan alongside a separate $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged a vote on the latter measure by Sept. 27th after an extended public showdown between her party’s moderate and liberal factions.
Many of the party’s liberal members, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have said they won’t support the infrastructure bill until they’re able to pass the budget bill first, creating a scenario where Democratic leaders are attempting to have both measures ready to pass over the next three weeks.
The budget bill, which will not require any Republican votes to pass, is the larger and more sweeping of the two. It currently includes policies ranging from tax breaks for carbon-free energy, establishing a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented workers living in the U.S., and a multi-year extension of the enhanced child tax credit program Biden signed into law earlier this year.
Democrats have said the spending, spread out over a 10-year period, would be offset by revenue raisers also included in the bill. But they have yet to agree to what those potential tax increases would be.
It’s legislation that some Democrats describe in historic terms.
“It’s probably the most significant domestic legislation any one of us will ever vote on,” said Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, adding that he wants to keep it at its current $3.5 trillion size.
Outside groups are also waging an effort to keep the number there and protect their own spending priorities. The League of Conservation Voters, working with the group Climate Power, has spent $14 million encouraging lawmakers to back measures such as the clean energy tax breaks.
Officials with the group say the push dwarfs efforts made in 2009 and 2010, when Democrats last had control of the law-making process in Washington and were considering major climate change legislation.
“This is it. We’re out of time,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. “We’re seeing the destruction and deadly impacts of climate change all across the country and the world. The horrors of this summer are truly overwhelming, and it’s only getting worse. And so we absolutely have to act at the scale that science and justice require.”
Another group, Guarding Against Pandemics, has also run ads defending an initial proposal to spend $30 billion to prepare the country for the next pandemic. Even as a relatively small part of the overall bill, the spending has picked up a raft of defenders on Capitol Hill.
“Defunding pandemic preparedness is a little like defunding counter-terrorism after 9/11,” said Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York. “It’s so irrational and unconscionable as to be unthinkable.”
SENSE OF URGENCY
White House officials say they aren’t worried about keeping many of these various liberal groups and lawmakers satisfied, arguing that they’ve already been able to come closer to congressional approval than some skeptics once thought possible.
In a memo obtained by McClatchy, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield reiterated Biden’s support for both the budget and infrastructure bills, saying that the contrast they create with Republicans makes them a political winner.
“The time is now,” Bedingfield wrote in a memo addressed to House Democratic communication directors. “We have to meet the needs in front of us. Not tomorrow, not months from now, not next year. Right now. America’s working families deserve opportunity and nothing less.”
Barkan’s group, meanwhile, has run roughly $500,000 dollars of ads in states like New Jersey, Arizona, and West Virginia, pressuring lawmakers to back the home care measure.
Officials with his group, Be a Hero, say that a House proposal with just $150 billion in funding for home care — down from the $400 billion initially offered — would amount to a betrayal of the president’s promise.
“We are the richest nation in the history of the world. We have money for the Space Force, for tax cuts for billionaires, for an enormous military,” Barkan said. “It is within our power to fully fund healthcare. It is just a matter of reorienting our priorities to value basic health care and actual human life.”