© Reuters. U.S. President Joe Biden smiles after signing an executive order intended to reduce bureaucracy around government services for the public, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Democrats were struggling on Wednesday to find a path forward on President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion domestic investment bill, with moderate Joe Manchin objecting to parts of the program, a person familiar with their negotiations said.
Having averted a government shutdown and potential default this month, Senate Democrats hoped to pass the sweeping “Build Back Better” bill before Christmas. But the source said Biden and Manchin remain “far apart,” with Manchin objecting to an expanded child tax credit that other Democrats want in the program.
Manchin angrily denied that he was opposed to the child tax credit. “I’ve always been for child tax credits. We voted for it many times,” he told reporters in the Capitol.
Asked if he supported maintaining the credit in its current form, Manchin erupted: “I’m not negotiating with any of you. This is bullshit.”
Earlier, Biden acknowledged it was not clear if the legislation could pass before the end of the year.
“It’s going to be close,” Biden said.
With no votes to spare in passing the “Build Back Better” initiative amid solid Republican opposition, Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer faces his biggest challenge since becoming majority leader in January. He is feeling the heat from all sides.
Several Democratic senators panned the idea of removing the highly popular credit from the bill.
“It would be a terrible injustice to a lot of deserving children,” Senator Dick Durbin told reporters, while Senator Bernie Sanders called it “a disaster for working families.”
Some moderate Democratic senators saw no urgency in Schumer’s Christmas deadline but such flexibility infuriates liberals, who already swallowed a raft of compromises. They were promised quick action if they helped pass a separate $1 trillion bipartisan road and bridge-building infrastructure bill, which they did.
Schumer’s predicament is similar to that faced by Democrats over a decade ago under former President Barack Obama. Without Republican support, they struggled to enact the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which promised to make health insurance affordable to millions of Americans.
It finally passed in an election year and became the landmark achievement of Obama’s presidency.
Some political observers think Biden can afford to wait until early next year, maybe into February, to secure a victory. After that, lawmakers’ attention will turn almost exclusively to the Nov. 8 congressional elections.
‘FAILURE TO DELIVER’
The interrelated issues of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic will be the top campaign topics, former Senate Democratic aide Jim Manley predicted. But he added: “For Democrats who want to run on a positive agenda, the failure to deliver here is going to be very damaging.”
A middle ground, he added, could see negotiators “continue to slim down the package under the belief the progressives will take whatever the Senate sends over.”
As the waning days of the 2021 session of Congress tick down, the Senate parliamentarian still must rule on whether provisions in package, including a major reform of immigration policy, adhere to Senate rules.
It is a gargantuan task to achieve over a few days, as Republicans sit on the sidelines cheering for failure.
Once the parliamentarian gives lawmakers the green light, the final version of the legislation must then be written and signed off on by the 50-member Senate Democratic caucus.
The Senate’s year-end agenda could be further complicated if Schumer also decides to push forward with voting rights legislation, which could include a controversial change to the Senate filibuster rule that currently requires 60 votes for most legislation to pass.
“They’ve (Democrats) got to keep the stiff upper lip” for now, said No. 2 Senate Republican John Thune. “The smart ones over there realize this can’t and shouldn’t happen before the Christmas holidays, and we’ll just see how long it takes for leadership to come to the same conclusion.”