The two leading Democratic moderates made clear to their colleagues this week that a deal on the party’s sweeping economic package is far from secured, raising new questions about the fate of President Joe Biden’s first-term agenda, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Among the red flags: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona told lawmakers on a call that she would be hesitant to endorse a final deal on the social safety net plan until the House first passes the Senate’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Sinema indicated there had been a “breach in trust” following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to punt a vote on the infrastructure bill earlier this month after she had assured moderates her chamber would hold a final vote on the measure, one of the sources said.
But Pelosi and Biden were forced to reverse course and shelve the infrastructure plan after progressives refused to provide the necessary votes as they demanded Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin join with the rest of the Senate Democratic Caucus to push through the party’s larger social safety net and climate package first.
Yet Sinema and Manchin both made clear this week that they had disagreements with their party on some of the central components of the larger package, the clearest sign yet that Democratic leaders’ goal of passing both bills by their self-imposed October 31 deadline seems doubtful at best.
On a call with a small group of fellow Democrats this week, neither Sinema nor Manchin endorsed the $1.9 trillion-$2.2 trillion price tag that Biden has privately floated as a new topline number, saying they have yet to see details from the White House on such a proposal – even as progressives have said that figure is far too small to include their main priorities from the original $3.5 trillion plan. The initial 10-year proposal – which would touch nearly every aspect of American life from health care to the climate and raise taxes on corporations and high earners to pay for it – needs the support of all 50 Senate Democrats to pass, and Manchin and Sinema remain the most prominent skeptics.
Sinema said both she and Manchin told Biden they “cannot guarantee” they would get behind even $2.1 trillion, as she reiterated that the infrastructure bill should pass first to make progress on the larger plan, one of the sources said.
The two senators said they believed that their party should drop some programs offered in the larger package to cut its cost, breaking with progressives who want to maintain an array of programs but limit the number of years in which people would receive benefits. The senators indicated they should focus on a handful of new programs instead.
In particular, Manchin raised concerns over the proposed expansion of Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing coverage – something that Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, has contended is a red line for him and other progressives.
Manchin made clear he opposed new paid family and medical leave provisions that Democrats are trying to get into the bill while renewing his deep concerns over including a plan to provide tuition-free community college. As he’s done publicly, the West Virginia Democrat also called for new benefits to be means-tested – to limit the eligibility to those with lower incomes – an idea that has been resisted by many Democrats.
And perhaps what could emerge as the biggest sticking point: Manchin roundly rejected calls by Democrats to include aggressive climate measures – namely to substantially slash greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. He said the goal laid out by the White House to cut greenhouse emissions by half in that timeframe simply would not happen.
“We are in the middle of an energy crisis,” Manchin, who hails from a coal-producing state, told his colleagues, one of the sources said.
Manchin’s office declined to comment.
Sinema’s office would not discuss her private comments, but contended she’s been engaged in talks with her colleagues this week – and with the President. Her office referred CNN to an October 2 statement, where she was sharply critical of the move by House leaders to shelve the infrastructure vote, saying: “I have never, and would never, agree to any bargain that would hold one piece of legislation hostage to another.”
On Wednesday, Sinema aides made clear that talks are continuing with the White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“So far this week, Sen. Sinema has held several calls – including with President Biden, the White House team, Sen. Schumer’s team and other Senate and House colleagues – to continue discussions on the proposed budget reconciliation package,” her spokesman, John LaBombard, said. “Those conversations are ongoing.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.