Senate Democrats are poised to blow past their Wednesday deadline to finish the $3.5 trillion social welfare bill, raising fresh doubts about the party’s ability to hold together and put the bill onto President Biden’s desk.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer set the deadline to pressure lawmakers to use their August recess to draft the legislation. While talks took place over the monthlong break, the Senate made only minor progress as rifts emerged over the bill’s size and how to divvy up the taxpayer-financed windfall.
Mr. Schumer on Tuesday pleaded with his Democratic senators to pull together behind the spending plan that is the core of Mr. Biden’s agenda.
“Everyone, everyone is going to have input into this legislation. But, of course, our unity is our strength and if we’re not unified with 50 votes, we can’t get anything done. So, we all must come together now,” Mr. Schumer said in a Senate floor speech.
At the moment, the intraparty kerfuffle results from a cadre of moderate Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who refuse to back the large price tag. Mr. Manchin has said repeatedly stressed that he will only support a bill within the $1 trillion-to-$1.5 trillion range that is paid for by repealing Trump-era tax cuts.
“I don’t think there should be a ceiling or a floor, I really don’t,” Mr. Manchin said. “We should look at what’s a competitive tax code.”
The majority of the Democratic conference is opposed to any reconfiguration of the top-line numbers. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, a self-described socialist from Vermont, is holding firm on the need for $3.5 trillion for a historic expansion of the social safety net.
“This is an unprecedented moment in American history for a variety of reasons, dealing with COVID, dealing with climate [change] and dealing with all kinds of problems,” Mr. Sanders said. “We have to act in an unprecedented way.”
The impasse over the price tag, along with strong disagreement over how robust the climate and health care provisions will be, has hindered the Senate’s progress in drafting the bill.
“You can’t write a package if you don’t know how much you can spend,” a Senate Democratic aide said privately. “Until we know for sure what everyone is comfortable voting for, it will be difficult to finalize the bill.”
In recent days the disarray has only grown among Democrats. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana joined Mr. Manchin this week with demands that the package doesn’t add to the deficit.
“There’s plenty of things that we can be spending far more than $3.5 trillion on that will do this country a lot of good,” said Mr. Tester, who is generally considered a safe vote for Democratic leadership. “But if the money’s not spent correctly, then we got a problem. So I’m going to be looking at a couple of things — where the money is coming from, how it’s being raised and then how it’s being utilized.”
Democrats are pitching the spending bill to voters as “human infrastructure.” They suggest the package complements the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that focuses on roads, bridges, railway and airport projects.
The Senate passed the infrastructure bill last month. The bigger bill amounts to a wish list of liberal priorities such as proposals for climate change, amnesty for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, tuition-free community college and expanded health care programs.
Given Republicans’ solid opposition, Democrats plan to pass the $3.5 trillion package via a special process known as budget reconciliation. It allows some spending and tax measures to avoid the Senate‘s 60-vote filibuster threshold and pass with a simple majority of 51 votes.
Since the Senate is evenly split between both parties, any single lawmaker can exert significant influence over its crafting. Mr. Manchin and other moderates appear to be doing exactly that at the moment.
The tactic could imperil not only the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill but also the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.
The infrastructure deal, which passed the Senate in August, is awaiting action on the other side of the Capitol. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, pledged not to move the bill until the Senate passes a reconciliation measure.
“The success of each bill contributes to the success of the other,” said Mrs. Pelosi, arguing that the bipartisan infrastructure bill is inextricably linked to the social welfare bill.
The stand-off is likely to come to a head on Sept. 27, the day Mrs. Pelosi has agreed to hold a vote on the infrastructure measure. If the Senate does not pass a reconciliation bill by then, she will be caught between her caucuses moderates and progressives.
Some progressives appear eager to put the moderates in their place.
“Nothing would give me more pleasure than to tank a billionaire, dark money, fossil fuel, Exxon lobbyist-drafted ‘energy’ infrastructure bill if they come after our child care and climate priorities,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat and member of the far-left “Squad.”