Democrats considering two approaches to cutting the overall cost of a far-reaching social policy and climate bill: eliminating proposed programs entirely or shortening their duration.
Democrats’ debate over the two options gained traction this weekend after President Biden stated on Friday that they would have to reduce the size of the legislation, which is expected to cost $3.5 trillion over a decade to expand and create education, healthcare, climate, and other programs.
The amount of spending was opposed by centrists, who questioned the cost and the potential impact on inflation. According to people familiar with Mr. Biden’s remarks, he told House Democrats that after negotiations with centrists, he expects the overall bill to be between $1.9 trillion and $2.3 trillion.
Progressive Democrats, who supported the $3.5 trillion figure, acknowledged on Sunday that the legislation needed to be scaled back to reach a compromise, but there was no agreement on how much.
To achieve a lower spending range, some lawmakers, including progressives, are considering shortening the timeline for proposed spending, while others, including some centrists, want to focus the funds on a smaller number of programs, according to aides. Choosing which option to pursue—or whether to pursue a combination of both—is likely to force Democrats to make difficult choices about long-held goals. Among the many proposals, lawmakers hope to extend a recently expanded child tax credit, establish a new national paid leave program, and pressure utilities to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
Top Democrats in the House repeatedly postponed a vote on a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill that had already passed the Senate this week, insisting on first reaching an agreement on the social policy and climate bills. Over the weekend, Congress approved a 30-day extension of transportation programs that would have been reauthorized in the infrastructure bill but lapsed on Oct. 1, setting a new one-month deadline for Democrats to resolve intraparty disagreements.
Some Democrats see the social policy and climate bill as their only chance to address the entirety of the party’s agenda while they still control both the White House and Congress, which some Democrats fear will fall into Republican hands following next year’s midterm elections.
Republicans have been largely united in their opposition, with much of their focus on the proposed tax increases to cover the funding. As a result, Democrats are pursuing the social policy and climate bill through a process known as budget reconciliation, which allows them to advance legislation with a simple majority in the Senate rather than the 60 required normally.
Simultaneously passing measures on policy issues ranging from electric vehicle tax credits to prescription drug price reductions is a way to address many of the party’s top priorities before the election, even if those measures would then expire in a few years. Setting up the programs for a few years would put pressure on lawmakers from both parties to renew them in the future, spreading the cost of funding the programs across multiple pieces of legislation over several years. Some centrists have argued that such a strategy is simply a ruse to hide the true cost of the bill, and have instead advocated for a more limited set of programs.
Democrats planned to fund priorities on a temporary basis, even at the $3.5 trillion price tag. House Democrats, for example, drafted legislation that funded the expanded child tax credit for four more years, two years of community college for five years, child-care provisions for six years, and universal prekindergarten for seven years. According to the aides, lawmakers are considering shortening the timelines for those programs, as well as paid family leave.
Some Democrats are lobbying for stronger support for their preferred priorities in the legislation. Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Washington), chairwoman of the New Democrat Coalition, said Democrats should focus their resources on the expanded child tax credit and avoid uncertainty about whether the program will continue in the future.
Other Democrats see starting many new programs as a way to build public support for the measures and make progress on an array of policy goals at once, at the risk of future Congresses letting them expire.