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Democrats drop paid family and medical leave from safety net bill

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WASHINGTON — Democrats are dropping family and medical paid leave from President Joe Biden's Build Back Better spending package, multiple sources confirmed to NBC News, as the party feverishly works to narrow down the bill and secure an agreement.

The move comes after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a key centrist, raised objections to including guaranteed paid leave in the social safety net bill. Its removal deals a blow to Democrats who viewed the proposal as a key component of Biden's legislative agenda.

Manchin indicated to reporters that he didn't think the spending measure, known as the reconciliation bill, should be used to pass a significant policy proposal like paid leave.

"I want to look at everything —we should be examining all this stuff. There's a lot of things that could be good. But to put this in the reconciliation bill — major policy — is not the place to do it," he told reporters on Wednesday.

When pressed on whether paid leave should be in the final legislation, Manchin responded: "I'm just saying that we have to be careful what we're doing. If we're gonna do it, do it right."

Some Democrats have said they will ramp up efforts to get the proposal back in the bill.

“Until the bill is printed, I will continue working to include paid leave in the Build Back Better plan,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who had been in discussions with Manchin about salvaging the provision.

When reached for comment on the removal of paid leave, Biden administration officials referred to comments made by White House press secretary Jen Psaki during Wednesday's briefing.

"What is important for people to understand here and now is: From the beginning, we have said the president was open to compromise. He has said that," Psaki told reporters when pressed about the latest details on the proposal. "He knew, and he knows from legislating for 36 years, you're never going to get every single thing you want in a package. We know that."

The White House had hoped to wrap up negotiations on the spending bill before Biden jets off to Europe for meetings with international leaders. But even as Democratic leaders optimistically signaled an impending agreement, key lawmakers said there were still major issues to resolve.

Moderate Democrats, especially Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, have taken issue with several aspects of Biden's spending agenda and have sought a smaller price tag than the $3.5 trillion that was initially being considered in Congress.

Manchin had recently indicated he was not in favor of including four weeks of paid family and medical leave in the bill. The four-week plan was presented as a compromise to the 12 weeks Biden initially proposed. Biden announced the scaled-back version during a CNN town hall last week.

The U.S. is one of just eight countries without national paid maternity leave.

Manchin is also souring on Medicare vouchers to help cover annual dental costs, as well as a push to expand Medicaid in Republican-led states that have not expanded coverage. Biden's original proposal called for broadening Medicare coverage to include dental care.

Separately, Manchin hasn't signed onto a proposed billionaire tax, a key element of efforts by congressional Democrats to strike a deal Wednesday on the spending package.

"I don’t like the connotation that we’re targeting different people. There’s people that basically, they’ve contributed to society, they’ve created a lot of jobs, and invested a lot of money and give a lot to philanthropic pursuits," Manchin told reporters Wednesday when asked about the billionaire tax proposal released earlier that day.

"But it’s time that we all pull together and row together."

A Manchin aide said he's conflicted about the idea but hasn't closed the door.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he's "upbeat" about the progress toward winning all 50 Democrats for a plan to tax billionaires.

Wyden told reporters Wednesday that he and Manchin are discussing the matter, and that they agree "everybody should pay their fair share." He added that "there has not been a single United States senator" who says they're "supportive of the idea that billionaires should pay nothing."

White House officials met Wednesday with Manchin and Sinema, two Democrats who have chipped away at Biden's Build Back Better proposal. Biden met with the two senators at the White House on Tuesday.

Sinema ignored questions Wednesday about whether she supports the billionaire tax.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., asked about the proposal, said the "devil is in the details." The legislative text hasn't been fully fleshed out or evaluated by Congress's nonpartisan scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office.

Separately, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., went to the White House on Wednesday afternoon to meet with Biden. Sanders is one of the biggest proponents of Medicare expansion, another sticking point in negotiations for the overall spending bill.

Sanders told reporters following the meeting that his issue is not with the president, but with some Democratic lawmakers.

"The problem is with members here who, although they are very few in number...think that they have a right to determine what the rest of the Congress should be doing," he said. "And it is very clear that in both cases, the need to lower the cost of prescription drugs and the need to expand Medicare."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced in a letter to Democrats on Wednesday that the Rules Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on the spending package.

"As we have insisted, we are close to agreement on the priorities and the topline of the legislation, which can and must pass the House and Senate," said Pelosi.

“An agreement is within arm's length, and we are hopeful that we can come to a framework agreement by the end of today," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday.

Schumer added that Democrats are “going to make sure the tax system is very progressive and meets our goals, and we're finding many different ways, and nothing has been foreclosed on.”

Even as Manchin raised alarm that he might not be willing to sign onto key elements being negotiated, he voiced optimism that an agreement could be within reach.

"Absolutely" a deal can be reached as early as Wednesday, Manchin told reporters. He added, "When I say deal, we need to move forward."

Manchin said he doesn't plan on meeting with the president Wednesday.

Some Democrats said too many key components of Biden's spending package have already been gutted to satisfy Manchin and Sinema. Without any Republican support, Democrats cannot afford to lose any of their 50 votes in the Senate and must hold their narrow majority together in the House.

Biden told reporters on Monday that it is his "hope" to reach an agreement on the social policy bill before he leaves this week for the G20 summit in Rome and the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

"It'd be very, very positive to get it done before the trip," Biden said.

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