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The real debate among Democrats over Biden’s agenda is just beginning

By Lauren Fox, Annie Grayer and Melanie Zanona, CNN

With a debt ceiling crisis punted until December, Democrats are turning their sights back to their own agenda, a move that will shake the party’s resolve and test whether it can make hard choices and compromise a reality.

Already, Democrats have struggled to contain bitter infighting between their moderate and progressive wings, divisions that stopped the House from passing a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to rebuild the country’s roads and bridges in recent weeks, a battle that still threatens to derail President Joe Biden’s agenda overall. Another poor jobs report Friday rattled the White House, putting even more pressure on Democrats to deliver a win for the President.

Democrats are grumbling within their ranks about how much to slim down their $3.5 trillion social safety net bill, and members have conflicting views about which programs are most important to the future of the country and the party. A debate also is emerging about how much to focus the legislation.

The conflict has only grown as Democrats wait on pins and needles to see how much their moderate colleagues, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virgina, will be willing to spend on Biden’s signature legislation. The two members have come under fire by some who say they are obstructing progress.

“When you got 48 people on one side and you have overwhelmingly strong numbers from the American people on one side, and you got the President of the United States on one side, it is simply not fair, not right, that one or two people say, ‘My way or the highway,’ ” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, on Friday.

But there is a slow and growing reality that in order to pass Biden’s larger social safety net bill through the Senate, Democrats will have to shrink their price tag, begging the questions of which programs they will choose to cut. The original $3.5 trillion package contained a wish list of Democratic promises including a paid family leave program, child care assistance, an expanded child tax credit and a reimagination of the US tax code that shifts the burden of taxes to the wealthy and businesses. Democrats also want to expand Medicare to provide dental and hearing coverage in the existing program and shore up Obamacare by boosting Medicaid coverage for states that didn’t expand the program and increasing subsidies for Americans

Not everything can be preserved. Members and aides point out that the hard-fought discussions about what stays and what goes are just getting underway and the process could be messy and tumultuous. This week, Democrats in the Senate were given handouts laying out how much various programs cost, an effort to focus the discussion about where the party should go with a more limited bill.

Tough choices

Democrats say they are now facing a choice. They could choose to keep many of the programs but limit the investment they make in them or have them expire sooner. Some progressives are betting that strategy could create a world where public pressure down the road would keep the programs renewed even after funding lapsed.

“As far as I am concerned all of these programs are things the American public and families have been waiting for … and so I would like to see all of them get funded to some extent so we can get going,” said Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. “At some point they all become the fabric of our country.”

Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat, told CNN that after a caucus meeting this week, progressives unified around the idea that if the cost of the package has to come down — which all signs suggest it will — then the goal is to keep all programs in the package but shorten the amount of time each one is funded.

“That was really important to our members,” Jayapal told CNN. “I communicated that to the White House directly.”

One option progressives aren’t open to is means-testing or narrowing who qualifies for programs, a strategy Manchin has advocated. Jayapal’s team put together a memorandum, obtained by CNN, that was sent to the White House and all members of the progressive caucus on Thursday that outlined why such provisions should not be in the final version of the bill.

“They disproportionately exclude the most vulnerable,” the five-page memorandum reads, listing one of the many reasons the caucus is against means-testing and work requirements. “They delay the delivery of benefits and increase the burden on the very applicants they are designed to serve.”

Other members want to go in a different direction.

Many moderates are hoping that Democrats will choose to narrow their agenda and invest in fewer programs to help focus the message.

Should they go with a smaller number of programs or “more things for less time or with fewer people?” said Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat from Minnesota. “That’s the debate we are going through.”

Smith argued that Democrats may be better served by investing more in less, citing an example of child care that will matter to families only if they feel like the benefit is robust enough to make a difference in their daily lives.

“If you don’t do it in a big enough way, it’s not going to make more than a ripple of difference,” Smith said.

Multiple members told CNN that they expect the tough conversations are just in their infancy as the party struggles to contain and rein in legislation that became a kind of legislative Christmas tree of Democratic priorities.

Jayapal says progressives are still waiting to know where things stand.

“I know that those negotiations are happening, but I don’t think that they’re at a place where there’s any agreement or any kind of final thing that we can hang our hats on and start to discuss whether or not that’s sufficient for us,” Jayapal told CNN. “So it’s an ongoing process.”

But Jayapal added that the strategy her caucus upheld of linking the infrastructure bill to the social safety net package is what she believes kick-started negotiations between the White House and the two Democratic senators who remain holdouts into high gear.

“Until we said we weren’t going to vote for the infrastructure bill without the reconciliation bill, there was no conversation from those two senators about what they didn’t like or what they did like,” Jayapal said. “That only happened because we linked the two bills together.”

For the leaders in the party — many of whom are in their 70s and 80s — the measure marks a pinnacle in their careers, an opportunity to pass legislation they’ve spent decades working toward. For Sanders, an expansion of Medicare is a top priority. For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, shoring up Obamacare is crucial. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, has worked to expand the child tax credit, while others have spent decades fighting for paid family leave.

But for members who are facing reelection in tough districts, their message to leaders has been to focus on just a handful of things that the party could execute well.

“We need to get to a top number, and then what I would prefer is fewer programs for a longer period of time,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana. “But all of that is negotiable.”

Asked if there was a risk in trying to do too much and explain to people what is inside, Tester said, “Absolutely.”

“There are like 17 different things in this bill that are game-changers, and there is a risk of that,” he continued.

Jayapal thinks it is too early to be making immediate concessions just to get something done.

“The something vs. nothing discussion, to me, it’s way too early to have that discussion. That’s something that happens at the end of a negotiation, when you really fought for something,” Jayapal said. “And the truth is, there was five months of negotiation on the infrastructure bill. And there’s been really no negotiation on the Build Back Better Act.”

Biden tends to front-liners

While nearly every vote matters in Democrats’ razor-thin majorities, Biden has taken extra care to tend to his party’s most vulnerable members, promising in private meetings to deliver wins for their reelection campaigns and even offering to visit their districts to help sell his social safety net package.

Biden kicked off a virtual meeting with so-called “front-line” House Democrats this week by acknowledging that these members will face some of the most competitive reelection races in the country next year, and he stressed that it’s imperative to ensure their needs and concerns are heard throughout the negotiating process.

“The President made it perfectly clear that part of his agenda is to make sure that we get some wins out of this bill, and that they will be things that we can run on,” said Rep. Susan Wild, a Pennsylvania Democrat who participated in the meeting.

The virtual meeting came just hours before Biden traveled to a Michigan district represented by Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a key swing district carried by Donald Trump in 2020. Biden also offered to visit other front-line distincts, a proposition that several members agreed would be helpful, according to lawmakers who participated in the meeting.

“He’s still in an effort to try to bring the House together and push us to vote for this historic bill,” said Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who represents a competitive district along the Texas border. “The urgencies for every member are different. … We’re living in a big tent in the Democratic Party right now.”

“He also realizes that getting this done is important for competitive races, and getting it done in a timely fashion that by next election, the American people will see shovels in the ground,” Gonzalez added of Biden.

The President has also been able to keep progressives feeling validated and a part of the process. Jayapal pointed to Biden’s visit to the House last week as important to reinforcing the position that progressives have held all along.

While party leaders need progressives to get on board as much as the moderates, there is also a recognition that front-line Democrats have the most to lose if their party fails to deliver on Biden’s economic agenda. Whether these members keep their seats — and with it, control of the House majority — may hinge on whether and what type of legislation Democrats are able to pass.

With that dynamic in mind, Biden — who has been in “listening mode” and was seen scribbling on a notepad during his virtual meeting with moderates, according to attendees — asked front-line members to list their top preferences for the economic bill. The priorities they named included drug pricing, child care and community college.

Where things stand with the price tag

Biden, along with Pelosi, has made clear to members that the cost of the social safety net package needs to be scaled down.

On Monday, Pelosi wrote in a letter that Biden “indicated that we would be working with a lower topline number, and decisions must therefore be made regarding the size and scope of the reconciliation bill.”

Biden has reportedly been steering the original $3.5 trillion to land somewhere in the $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion range. Manchin has said he’d like to see the package cost $1.5 trillion.

Although Jayapal confirmed to CNN that she had told Biden on Monday that she thought his range of $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion “was too small,” she said she is not moving forward in negotiations with a specific number in mind but wants to keep it “as close to” the $3.5 trillion version of the package that has been marked up in the House as possible.

“I don’t have a number. I told the President I thought 1.9 (trillion) to 2.2 (trillion) was too small in order to get all of our priorities in,” she said.

Progressive freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones of New York told CNN that the conversation about the top line for the package is premature.

“We start with needing Manchin and Sinema to tell us what things they want to cut from the $3.5 trillion,” Jones said.

In his meeting with front-liners, Biden asked those who have a top-line number to state it, but no one did.

“He made it clear we’re never going to get to $3.5 trillion, and it’s probably somewhere in the middle,” Gonzalez said.

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