Sat | Nov 27, 2021

Biden meeting with Democrats as US$3.5t plan faces party split

Published:Friday | September 24, 2021 | 12:10 AM
US President Joe Biden attends a virtual COVID-19 summit during the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, on Wednesday, September 22, in Washington.
AP US President Joe Biden attends a virtual COVID-19 summit during the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, on Wednesday, September 22, in Washington.

Time growing shorter, United States President Joe Biden planned to meet privately on this week with House and Senate Democrats as the US Congress worked to bridge party divisions over his big ‘build back better’ agenda ahead of crucial voting deadlines.

The meetings at the White House come at a pivotal juncture for Biden’s US$3.5 trillion package as lawmakers struggle to draft the ambitious effort. With Republicans solidly opposed, Democratic leaders are counting on the president to galvanise consensus between progressives and centrists in their party.

Biden was also meeting separately with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the White House’s communications team headed to Capitol Hill to huddle with other House Democrats.

“The time is now,” Biden tweeted in a video on Tuesday ahead of the White House sessions. The House faces a deadline on Monday to vote on the first part of Biden’s plan — a nearly US$1-trillion public works measure that was already approved by the Senate but has become tangled in disputes over the broader package.

Centrist Democrats support the slimmer bill, but have raised concerns about Biden’s broader vision — which entails revamping federal taxes and spending to make what the president views as overdue investments in healthcare, family services and efforts to fight climate change.

The US$3.5 trillion package would impose tax hikes on corporations and wealthy Americans earning beyond US$400,000 a year and plow that money back into federal programmes for the young and old.

House Speaker Pelosi has promised centrists a vote on the more modest US$1 trillion public works package. That bill of roads, broadband and public water projects enjoys bipartisan Senate support and should easily pass the House even with growing House Republican opposition, but has become sidelined by the bigger debate.

“I’m confident we’ll have the votes,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, a leader of the centrist coalition who is attending the White House meeting.

But progressive lawmakers view the public works bill as inadequate and plan to vote against it unless it is considered alongside the bigger Biden package. Some 50 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus plan to vote against the bipartisan measure.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, chairwoman of the progressive caucus, emerged from an hour-long meeting with Pelosi late Tuesday saying its position had not changed and the two bills must move “in tandem” to win the progressive votes. Jayapal also will attend the meeting with Biden.

Publicly, the White House has remained confident both bills will pass, and Democratic leaders are pushing ahead as they draft the details.

Tensions are high as the Biden agenda is a key campaign promise not only from the president, but most of the Democratic lawmakers, including those in the House who face re-election next year.

All this as the House and Senate are at a standstill over a separate package to keep the government funded past the September 30 fiscal year end and suspend the federal debt limit to avert what could be a devastating US default on payments.

The government faces a shutdown if funding stops on September 30, the end of the fiscal year. Additionally, at some point in October, the US risks defaulting on its accumulated debt load if its borrowing limits are not waived or adjusted.

Rushing to prevent that dire outcome, the Democratic-led House passed the funding-and-debt measure on Tuesday night, but Republicans are refusing to give their support in the Senate, despite the risk of triggering a fiscal crisis.

“Our country will suffer greatly if we do not act now to stave off this unnecessary and preventable crisis,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. And the administration has sent intermediaries, including former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, to meet with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

But McConnell said since Democrats control the White House and Congress, it’s their problem to find the votes — though he had relied on bipartisan cooperation to approve debt-limit measures when Republicans were in charge.

“The debt ceiling will be raised, as it always should be, but it will be raised by the Democrats,” McConnell said.

The measure approved on Tuesday night would provide stopgap money to keep the government funded to December 3 and extend borrowing authority through to the end of 2022. It includes US$28.6 billion in disaster relief for the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and other extreme weather events, and $6.3 billion to support Afghanistan evacuees in the fallout from the end of the 20-year war.

In the 50-50 Senate, Democrats will be hard-pressed to find 10 Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster.

The Treasury Department has been using “extraordinary measures” to fund the government since the last debt-limit suspension expired on July 31, and projects that at some point next month it will run out of cash reserves. That could force the Treasury to delay or miss payments.