Hey What Is Up With The 'Build Back Better' Sausage? Well, Who F*cking Knows!
Don't look too closely at the sausage-making, it's not done yet.
President Joe Biden met yesterday with a whole bunch of Democratic members of Congress to get things moving on the Build Back Better reconciliation bill, and it's starting to look like some progress is being made. As we've known from the start, getting it passed with all 50 Democrats in the Senate will require the votes of the two-member Senate Democratic Obstructionist Caucus, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, both of whom want the final bill to be far smaller than the initial $3.5 trillion plan (over 10 years), which you may remember was already a compromise from "all the trillions."
In his White House meeting with progressive Dems yesterday, Biden floated a top line number of around $2 trillion, or possibly as low as $1.75 trillion even, depending on what ultimately goes into the bill, which is still very much being negotiated. After the meeting, Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) said that what matters isn't so much the precise number, but putting programs in place that will help working families and address the threat of climate change:
It's not the number that we want — we have consistently tried to make it as high as possible. [...] The idea that we can do these programs, a multitude of programs, and actually get them going so that they deliver immediate transformational benefits to people is what we're focused on.
The Washington Post reports that Biden told progressives a likely framework would still include most key provisions of his agenda, though they'd have to be scaled back, according to four insiders who spoke to the Post:
That includes at least some expansion of Medicare to offer new benefits to seniors, the introduction of universal prekindergarten, and billions of dollars to address climate change. [...]
The path put forward by the White House could extend new, expanded child tax credit payments recently adopted by Congress, but perhaps for only one additional year, three of the sources said. It would offer new money to make housing more affordable, yet far less than Democrats once envisioned. And it would provide paid leave, except only four weeks of benefits, rather than the 12 weeks some had once proposed, according to one of the people in the room.
Jayapal said progressives' top priorities "are here in some way, shape, or form," so the idea will be to get the programs in place to start, then solidify support (and additional funding) for them once people start realizing they like getting that expanded child tax credit and at least some paid family and medical leave.
And ideally, it can be put in place soon enough to build support for Dems expanding their Senate majority in the 2022 midterms, so two right-leaning Democrats can't stop us from having nice things anymore, Dok editorialized shamelessly.
As it is, the demand to pare down the reconciliation bill along with Joe Manchin's fealty to the fossil fuels industry (he's not just a client, he's got money in the game ) have already meant that two big parts of Build Back Better will be scrapped. To preserve funding for other domestic policies, the plan to provide two years of free community college is likely a goner, to be replaced by some "community college scholarship" benefits that have yet to be determined.
Worse, one of the bill's central climate provisions, the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) is probably going to be removed because of Manchin's refusal to allow anything that would be bad for fossil fuels. CEPP would push electric utilities to accelerate the transition to renewable power by providing financial bonuses to utilities that reduce carbon emissions beyond a target level, and by fining companies that fail to meet the goal. Democrats are still planning to include other climate spending that Manchin may go along with, but to seriously reduce greenhouse emissions, energy policy needs teeth. God damn it.
One other absolutely essential part of Build Back Better, the expanded child tax credit that went into effect as part of the American Rescue Plan, may also be endangered by Manchin, but again, we don't know yet how the negotiations will go. As David Dayen explains at The American Prospect, Manchin's dream is to deeply crappify the program:
The expanded tax credit, which gives $3,600 per year to families with children below age 6 and $3,000 per year to those with children between ages 6 and 17, and delivers the funds on a monthly basis, [currently] has high phaseouts beginning at $150,000 a year for families ($75,000 for single parents). But Manchin wants to start the phaseouts at $60,000 of family income, while including a work requirement that would restrict the poorest families from receiving the benefit. [...]
But if you phase out the increased tax credit that quickly, and too few people under that threshold actually receive it, the "new" CTC will essentially resemble the one in place since the Trump tax cuts boosted the credit to $2,000 per year for children. Add in Manchin's work requirements, and the bill would find itself to the right of Trump's plan.
The upside, if any, is that a lot of Democrats in both houses are passionate about the child tax credit and may very well be able to prevent Manchin from turning it into what might come to be seen as merely a "welfare" benefit — except it screws people on welfare too — which would diminish its support and make it far more vulnerable to being eliminated altogether. So again, we'll see how the negotiations go. Dayen warns that while it can make some sense to get programs into place, even with only short-term funding, those programs won't find the support they need if they're too narrowly targeted:
Unless you can get Manchin off his red lines, you're left with a bunch of compromised, pinched, poorly designed measures that in some cases are no better than the status quo. And to save money, some or all of those measures might sunset after a few years .
It's one thing to sunset a good plan that tangibly benefits people, and dare the other side to let it expire. It's quite another to sunset clunky plans that don't work very well; there won't be much of a popular constituency to maintain them. A permanent program like the ACA can generate momentum for fixes; indeed, there's the subsidy expansion that could still end up part of this bill. Fixing a temporary program is a heavier lift.
Dayen also notes that while it might be difficult to get excited about what looks like a collection of half measures, instead of the New Deal-ish plans Biden introduced, we're likely at "the low point in the negotiations," and it's still possible that a compromise can be worked out that adequately funds robust programs. The last thing we want to do, he says, is to Build Back Worse.
For now, nothing is set in stone, and Manchin is still talking with Bernie Sanders; they met a second time yesterday, and perhaps Manchin can be persuaded that West Virginia families really will benefit from the reconciliation bill. We're doing our best to remain caustically optimistic.
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