How Biden’s ambitious agenda is being nibbled away

Joe Biden’s legislative ambitions are undergoing a serious haircut — bits of his agenda are being snipped, chopped or dropped.

He took office with a transformative program touching climate change, health care, child policy, immigration and taxes.

He’s still urgently trying to push through changes on these fronts and will be in Pennsylvania today promoting them.

But a cold political reality has set in. Biden lacks the congressional super-majorities of past transformative liberal presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

Those game-changing Democratic presidents benefited from their party holding nearly three-quarters of the seats in Congress, while under Biden they hold a wafer-thin advantage in both chambers.

As a result their best chance in a generation to advance their priorities rests on cramming everything into one bill — a budget bill, which under the Senate rules, can, unlike most legislation, pass on a simple majority vote.

Two senators pruning the president’s plans

Yet two senators in particular have been pruning the president’s plans: Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

The bottom line? A package progressives once hoped might cost $6 trillion US, and Biden had pegged at $3.5 trillion, might contain at most $2 trillion.

That’s if it passes at all.

Eager to make progress before a Nov. 2 Virginia governor’s race where defeat would demoralize Democrats, Biden is hitting the road to sell the plan.

“The president is certainly feeling an urgency,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

Manchin’s demands are better known because he’s been consistently making them publicly, in interviews and op-eds

He’s a rare Democrat elected in the conservative south. West Virginia is a coal-mining state; he’s worked to water down the climate provisions in particular.

U.S. President Joe Biden hopes the finish line might be in sight for adoption of his landmark spending bill. But it’s going to be smaller than he hoped. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Sinema’s demands aren’t as clear. 

She rarely speaks to the press, and even her Senate colleagues have described the former Green Party activist as inscrutable behind closed doors. 

Saturday Night Live has mocked her and polls suggest she risks being unseated in a 2024 party primary; there are satirical pieces purporting to guess her psychological motivations. 

In any case, Biden needs both their votes or his legislative agenda is toast. And here’s how it’s looking.

Climate proposal could affect Canada

The centrepiece of Biden’s climate agenda is a zero-carbon power grid by 2035. That’s a big change for a country where power-generation represents nearly one-third of emissions.

The plan would pay power companies if they hit renewable-energy targets — and demand payment from companies that don’t.

It’s the heart of what Biden was hoping to talk about when he and 13 members of his cabinet head to the Glasgow climate summit later this month.

But Manchin isn’t having it.

The coal-state senator worked in the coal industry and still owns abundant stocks in fossil-fuel energy. He says the energy sector is already transitioning and doesn’t need government subsidies.

Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia shown on Sept. 30, is trailed constantly by congressional reporters, who record his every utterance about how he might vote on key legislation. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

“It makes no sense at all,” Manchin told ABC News this summer, of the current plan.

A New York Times report says the plan is dead. Other reports say it’s not quite dead but in limbo, and that Manchin is presenting counter-proposals that would benefit fossil-fuel companies and invest in carbon capture.

One energy think-tank says the utilities plan accounts for at least one-third of the emissions cuts Democrats hope to achieve through this bill and a related infrastructure one.

Democrats still have other climate policies if this goes down.

Canada should pay special attention here: One proposal could damage investment in vehicle production in Canada, and it’s already spurring talk of trade lawsuits and retaliation.

Democrats want to subsidize electric vehicle purchases through tax credits for consumers — but favour vehicles assembled in the U.S.

Separately, Biden has signed executive orders like one to curtail emissions of hydrofluorocarbons.

Immigration reform unlikely

It’s looking bleak for immigration reform.

The Democrats’ return to power had stoked the hopes of millions who’ve long lived in the country without official status that they might be granted legal residency.

The system hasn’t been updated in decades and is derided by both sides of the political aisle on multiple fronts — inhumane, and insecure and inefficient for the economy.

Exhaust rises from a coal-fired power station in Haywood, W. Va., in 2018. Manchin, a senator from the state, says the transition to cleaner energy is already happening and doesn’t need a big new program. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The parties can’t agree on reforms and that has left the simple-majority budget vote as the best chance of making changes.

But the parliamentarian who interprets Senate rules, Elizabeth MacDonough, has twice declared that Democrats’ immigration plans aren’t budget measures and don’t belong in the bill.

Democrats could, in theory, ignore the parliamentarian; some insist they haven’t given up on getting limited immigration changes into the bill.

But immigration advocates are losing patience with the administration and staged a virtual walkout of a meeting this month.

Child policies

The Biden program calls for sweeping changes in family policy — nationwide paid leave for new parents, a first for the U.S.; universal pre-kindergarten; subsidies for child care; and a multi-year extension of a child benefit modelled in part on Canada’s.

Many of these ideas may wind up in a final bill, but as more modest versions.

Manchin wants to trim the cost. On the child benefit, he’s said for months there should be income limits to qualify and also reportedly wants a work requirement for parents.

This worries advocates of the current temporary program, part of a pandemic bill in which families got a $3,600 annual tax credit.

Allison Bovell-Ammon, who advised Congress on the measure, said the pandemic program has been a huge success.

Census data show an immediate decline by nearly one-quarter in the percentage of households with children suffering from food insufficiency. 

“We’ve been hearing from families how transformational it’s been,” said Bovell-Ammon, director of policy strategy at Children’s HealthWatch, a Boston-based research organization.

She said adding income limits creates new problems.

First, she said the income cap, reported to be $60,000 US, is too low for parts of the country, such as Boston, that have a high cost of living.

An immigration protest in Washington last month. Immigration advocates are growing impatient with Democrats and fear the opportunity for long-coveted reforms is slipping by. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

She also said the program would become harder to administer, less popular and ultimately less likely to keep getting funded.

She said there’s a reason the most enduring social programs in the U.S. for seniors — touching pensions and health care — are universal.

She said the proposed work requirement would also hurt people in dire situations, including full-time caregivers. 

“We made a policy decision years ago that people who are elderly in the United States should not live in a property. And I think we should make the same decision for children,” she said.

Expanding health care

Just over a year ago Democrats were debating about Medicare For All. Joe Biden’s platform didn’t go that far but he did propose a public program any American could buy into.

Either would have been transformative in a country where more than 10 per cent of people lack health insurance.

That was then.

The goals set by Democrats’ congressional leadership for this budget bill were more modest: An expanded public system for seniors, to include dental, vision and hearing benefits, and new funding for other existing programs.

They would also let the U.S. government negotiate with drug companies for the medicine distributed in public programs, as happens in other countries.

That’s designed to lower drug costs and save the federal government hundreds of billions this decade, helping to pay for the bill.

Yet several Democrats oppose the health proposals. In the House of Representatives, several Democrats have voted against the pharma plan, and it’s reportedly being fought by Sinema, who holds a deciding Senate vote.

Her colleagues say she’s not on side yet. 

Sinema, who has been described in media reports as a favourite of the pharma industry, has said little publicly.

But she has blasted Democrats for delaying a final vote on the $1-trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill she worked on, in order to prioritize the broader budget bill.

Sinema called that “inexcusable.” 

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