(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden’s economic agenda is mired in a messy, last-mile effort to get Democrats on the same page on a bill that will be a shadow of the original idea.
But while it’s frustrating to Democrats and weighing on Biden’s approval ratings, it’s a fairly typical legislative slog for Washington, where signs of a breakthrough were emerging Tuesday evening on climate and taxes.
Aside from the coronavirus relief measures or the quick stimulus packages passed right after President Barack Obama took office amid a financial crisis, major policy making in Washington has become ensnared by months-long disputes, even when the party in power has more than a handful-of-seats margin.
That was true for things that passed, including the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare -- 13 months from Obama telling Congress he wanted it until the bill was signed -- and the Trump tax overhaul, whose negotiations bogged down for months. And it’s true for those that didn’t, like police reform negotiations that have all but collapsed.
The wrangling over Biden’s economic agenda -- a mix of social and environmental programs, a tax credit for parents, and tax increases on corporations and the wealthy -- has blown past one deadline a month ago and poised to do so again this week.
“We are just missing two things: What exactly is going to be in the bill and how we’re going to pay for it,” Representative Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said earlier Tuesday. “Other than that, we are good to go.”
Democrats appear headed to a compromise solution. Senate Banking Chairman Sherrod Brown of Ohio said on Bloomberg Television’s “Balance of Power with David Westin” on Tuesday he’s confident Biden will be able to sign both the bipartisan infrastructure package and the Democratic bill by Thanksgiving. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her caucus Tuesday about 90% of the bill has been written. But she was contradicted by the progressive wing of the party when she suggested a framework agreement was enough.
Biden had expressed hope of a deal before he departs for Europe on Thursday, hoping to attend the United Nations climate summit in Scotland with new policy measures to tout. But his staff have downplayed the to-and-fro, with Press Secretary Jen Psaki chalking it up to the regular “sausage-making” of Washington.
Obstacles include final language on prescription drug prices, climate policies, health care expansions, and which wealthy people and corporations will be asked to pay for all of it.
Still, they are well ahead of the timeline for previous major legislative packages by either party. Obama didn’t get to sign the Affordable Care Act into law until March of 2010, more than a year after his inauguration, and the Republican tax plan in 2017 didn’t reach the finish line until December.
So if history is a guide, the final Biden package could still take months. But the president’s slump in the polls could help motivate a quicker resolution.
Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University, said the process “has a certain circus-like atmosphere to it, but I really think it’s because the clock is ticking and they’re using procedures that are quite complicated and any single House member or senator can blow the whistle.”
“This is,” she added, “like the Trump tax cuts, purely party line. All the dirty laundry is within the Democratic Party.”
Biden hosted lawmakers at the White House on Tuesday as part of his push, to show a united front. “When you’re united, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re unanimous,” Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a Biden ally, said Tuesday after meeting with the president.
One sticking point has been how to slash the bill’s cost to win the support of moderate Senate Democrats. Pelosi once pushed for full measures on a smaller range of programs, but signs now point to trimmed-down efforts on a broad range.
“You will pleased to see a little bit of all of the things we’ve mentioned in some form in the bill,” Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, an Ohio Democrat, said Tuesday. “We are not 100% there yet; we are very close.”
Earlier Tuesday, Democrats were trying to complete a framework that calls for $500 billion to confront climate change, making it one of the biggest portions of the spending bill, according to people familiar with the discussions. Separately, three Democratic senators proposed legislation that would require some U.S. companies to pay a minimum 15% tax rate on profits they report to their shareholders -- an idea quickly embraced by Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona in a sign the party is inching closer to resolution. Sinema has been a key holdout insisting on shrinking the size of the package and resisting individual and corporate income tax rate hikes.
Once Democrats agree on a package and draft a bill, they’ll face a gantlet of votes in the Senate on numerous Republican amendments, with GOP leaders hoping to drive a wedge among the Democrats. If they can’t sink the bill outright or shrink it, they plan to build a case against it to take to voters in the 2022 midterm elections.
“As you all know, I’ve been saying we’re close to a deal for some time,” Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said Tuesday. “So, you know, why would you even believe anything I told you?”
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