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US President Joe Biden talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington October 1, 2021. — Reuters pic
US President Joe Biden talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington October 1, 2021. — Reuters pic

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WASHINGTON, Oct 2 — President Joe Biden told congressional Democrats yesterday that he was open to scaling back a bill to boost social spending and fight climate change, but wanted to pass it in lock-step with a US$1 trillion infrastructure programme, lawmakers said.

Biden’s visit to the Capitol capped a tumultuous week that saw lawmakers narrowly avert a government shutdown and postpone a House of Representatives vote on the infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate.

The president told reporters after his 40-minute meeting with the fractious Democratic caucus that there was no rush to pass his agenda. Democrats had spent much of the week sparring about the size of a bill once estimated to cost US$3.5 trillion.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days or in six weeks. We’re going to get it done,” Biden said.

US presidents rarely visit Capitol Hill, preferring to summon lawmakers to the White House for discussions. Democrats said they hoped Biden’s visit could help renew momentum. Lawmakers who attended the meeting said he signaled willingness to sharply cut the US$3.5 trillion price tag to around US$2 trillion.

A source familiar with Biden’s remarks at the meeting said he told lawmakers, “Even a smaller bill can make historic investments.”

House moderates had pushed for a vote this week on the US$1 trillion bill already passed by the Senate to double investments in the nation’s roads, rails and other infrastructure. But progressives blocked it, fearful that passing the smaller bill would torpedo the larger one.

While Biden told lawmakers there was no immediate time pressure to pass the bills, Congress is facing two key deadlines in the weeks ahead.

The Treasury Department estimates that it has until about October 18 for the government’s US$28.4 trillion borrowing limit to be raised by Congress or risk a debt default with potentially catastrophic economic consequences. Then on December 3, the nation faces the risk of a government shutdown that could be politically damaging for Democrats.

By early next year, attention will focus on the midterm elections in November 2022, where history favours Republicans’ chances of recapturing a majority in Congress.

‘Have to come down’

The most vocal opponents to the proposed US$3.5 trillion size of the social and climate bill are moderate Senate Republicans Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, either of whom has the ability to prevent a bill from passing.

With the Senate divided 50-50 between the parties, Democrats hold the majority by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking votes. They aim to pass the larger bill without Republican support using a maneuver called “budgetary reconciliation.”

House progressives acknowledged after the meeting with Biden that the US$3.5 trillion number would need to be scaled back.

“We’re going to have to come down on our number,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, the influential chair of the 95-member Congressional Progressive Caucus.

But progressive Representative Jamie Raskin suggested that there were ways to cut the bill’s price tag while preserving many of the programmes Democrats want to include. The sweeping bill was to provide funding for universal preschool for all Americans, affordable housing and making homes more energy efficient.

“Maybe not everything can be funded for 10 years; maybe it’s going to be a lesser period of time,” said Representative Jamie Raskin. “At least we’ll be able to develop these programmes and make a commitment to the American people. Then we’ll be able to make a judgment after four years or five years about the programmes and whether they are working.”

Infrastructure vote postponed

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi had previously committed to moderates to vote on the infrastructure votes this week. She repeated those commitments on Thursday and yesterday, and in an odd parliamentary maneuver kept the House in session overnight so that Friday’s session was technically an extension of Thursday’s.

But after the Biden meeting, lawmakers said the vote would not happen on Friday. “What is clear is we’re not having a vote on the infrastructure bill today,” said Representative Peter Welch.

House Republicans are unlikely to help pass the infrastructure bill, eager to deny Biden a policy victory ahead of the midterms.

Even as they wrangle over Biden’s agenda, Democrats face the fast-approaching debt ceiling deadline.

Republicans want no part of the debt limit increase, saying it is Democrats’ problem since they control Congress and the White House. Democrats note that about US$5 trillion of the nation’s debt is the result of tax cuts and spending passed during Republican Donald Trump’s presidency.

The House approved a bill late on Wednesday suspending the debt limit through December 2022. The Senate could vote on it “as early as next week,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, but Republicans are expected to block it again as they have twice before. — Reuters

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