Biden reconciliation bill faces Senate land mines

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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) chairs a committee hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Nov. 16, 2021.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) chairs a committee hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Nov. 16, 2021.


President Biden's sweeping social and climate spending bill is facing an uncertain future in the Senate, where Democrats are hoping to pass it by the end of the year.

The House passed the roughly $2 trillion bill before the Thanksgiving break, formally starting the clock in the Senate, where Democrats need to balance their 50 seats in an ambitious push to give Biden a win by passing the bill within weeks and competing December deadlines.

Senate Democrats are navigating potential land mines as they try to lock down the spending bill and quickly cut a final deal.

Biden and Democratic leadership don't yet have 50 guaranteed "yes" votes to pass the bill or even start debate, a first step toward bringing the spending bill up on the Senate floor.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key moderate vote, declined to say if he would vote to start debate on the spending bill and sidestepped committing to the end-of-the-year timeline being pushed by Senate Democratic leadership.

"I think what we need to do is just really look at the bill that we have right now, what came from the House," Manchin said when asked about starting debate on the bill.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) also hasn't said if she supports the spending bill, noting in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this month that the bill passed by the House isn't a mirror image of the spending framework rolled out by the White House. Other Democrats, including Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), have said that they haven't yet dug into the House-passed legislation.

But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said senior White House officials had been in "close touch" with Senate Democrats, including meeting with the Budget Committee and staffers for Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"We are moving forward full speed to get this done, and we expect action on it in the coming weeks. We will continue to press for that," she said.

Because Democrats are using reconciliation, a budget process that lets them bypass a GOP filibuster, they need total unity from their caucus members plus Vice President Harris to break a tie to start debate on the spending bill and ultimately pass it.

Even after Democrats spent months haggling ahead of the House vote, the legislation is facing significant changes in the Senate because of the tightrope leadership is walking.

Manchin has raised concerns over a decision by House Democrats to include a paid leave program in the bill, as well as pushed back against using the Democratic spending bill to expand Medicare, create a methane emission fee and provide a larger tax credit for union-made electric vehicles.

Manchin has also raised concerns for months about inflation and indicated that he got an earful while back in West Virginia over the Thanksgiving break.

"I heard an awful lot over the Thanksgiving break that, you know, prices were high and that people were very much upset about that and concerned about, 'is inflation going to get worse,' " he said.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), meanwhile, is trying to go bigger on the Medicare expansion. The House-passed bill would expand Medicare to cover hearing, but Sanders is pushing to expand it to also include vision and dental.

"I intend to do everything I can to make that happen," he said.

Even as Democrats try to solve the legislative Rubik's Cube on what can get 50 votes from the caucus, they also still need to win over the Senate parliamentarian, an unelected referee who provides guidance on if a bill complies with the budget rules that limit what can be included in legislation passed though reconciliation.

Democrats have been working with the parliamentarian to make sure the House-passed bill complies with a budget resolution they passed earlier this year that teed up the spending bill. And they are in ongoing conversations with the Senate official about making sure the bill complies with the so-called Byrd rule, which outlines the restrictions for the budget process.

The parliamentarian has previously nixed the inclusion of two immigration plans that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants. Democrats are waiting for guidance from her on if their latest proposal, which would grant more than 6 million foreign nationals a temporary parole status that would give them five-year work and travel permits, complies with budgetary rules.

"Democrats will continue to meet with the Senate parliamentarian in order to complete the technical and procedural work required before a bill comes to the floor. Meetings were held over the Thanksgiving week, and we will continue this week and next week as needed," Schumer said from the Senate floor.

Republicans are also expected to use the Byrd rule to challenge other Democratic priorities including pieces of the prescription drug agreement worked out by Democrats. And even after the parliamentarian signs off on the legislation, Republicans will be able to force votes on any changes they want to the bill once it gets to the Senate floor.

Schumer hasn't specified what week he will bring the bill to the floor as Democrats face an end-of-year legislative pileup. Congress has until the end of Friday to prevent a government shutdown; Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has given Congress until Dec. 15 to raise the debt ceiling; and lawmakers are at a stalemate over how to advance a sweeping, and typically bipartisan, defense policy bill.

But Schumer vowed that Democrats want to get the reconciliation bill to Biden by Christmas. Any changes by the Senate will force the bill to go back to the House, where it will need to be passed a second time.

"Once this necessary work is completed with the parliamentarian," he said, "I will bring the president's Build Back Better legislation to the floor so we can pass it as soon as possible and send it to the president's desk. Our goal continues to be to get this done before Christmas."