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It's crunch time for the Democrats' Build Back Better agenda

For those keeping an eye on the Democrats' Build Back Better agenda, this is likely to be an interesting week.


For Democratic leaders, the original plan was to reach a compromise agreement on the Build Back Better agenda last month, then pass the bipartisan infrastructure package that cleared the Senate several weeks earlier. That plan didn't work out: Centrist and conservative Democrats balked at the White House's proposal and struggled to articulate their preferred alternatives.

And so, party leaders gave themselves more time: Under the Democrats' Plan B, Congress will tackle both parts of President Joe Biden's domestic agenda by the end of October, which is now only 13 days away.

As the month got underway, there was some optimism in Democratic circles. On Oct. 1, Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters, "We've seen more progress in the last 48 hours than we've seen in a long time" on the party's ambitious reconciliation bill. A few days later, The Washington Post reported that the negotiations were "beginning to narrow."

There was far less visible progress last week, and at the White House, there's a growing sense that it's time to stop talking and start legislating. NBC News reported the other day:

White House officials are signaling to Congress that the time is running short for negotiations over President Joe Biden's infrastructure and social spending packages and that they want a deal to get done quickly. A person familiar with the White House's thinking said that while Biden believes good progress has been made in negotiations, he thinks it is crucial to pass the bills soon, and officials are pushing members to do so.

The same day, Punchbowl News reported that the White House had sent a message to Capitol Hill, saying it's "time to reach a compromise on the reconciliation package and send it to President Joe Biden — ASAP."

Time is not on the party's side. The number of legislative days remaining in the calendar year is shrinking, and the longer it takes to advance the bills, the more time lobbyists have to target key provisions and undermine support.

What's more, the list of chokepoints isn't short.

Climate: The New York Times reported over the weekend that the most powerful part of Biden's climate agenda — "a program to rapidly replace the nation's coal- and gas-fired power plants with wind, solar and nuclear energy" — appears to be dead. At the insistence of Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginian who has received more campaign donations from the oil, coal, and gas industries than any other senator, the White House's clean electricity program will almost certainly be excluded from the reconciliation package. (There is, for the record, nothing "moderate" about this.)

Child Tax Credit: Manchin is also reportedly demanding strict work requirements and a low family income eligibility cap, which as Axios noted, "would dramatically weaken one of President Biden's signature programs to help working families." As a substantive matter, this is not a smart approach to the policy, but the West Virginian appears dug in.

Taxes: Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is reportedly keeping up her fight against rolling back parts of the Republicans' Trump-era tax breaks, despite Sinema having voted against those tax breaks.

Toplines and Price Tags: No one seriously believes a $3.5 trillion package over the next 10 years is going to pass. What's far less clear is what's realistic at this point. Manchin continues to push a $1.5 trillion figure, but he hasn't ruled out a slightly larger package. Sinema has also balked at the $3.5 trillion target, but she's reportedly reluctant to tell her own colleagues what total she prefers. There's scuttlebutt about packages ranging from $1.9 trillion to $2.5 trillion, but there's been little clarity about the final target.

Impossible tradeoffs: Democratic leaders appear to be struggling to figure out what to cut out of the Build Back Better agenda, especially on the issue of health care, on which centrist and conservative Democrats have effectively asked the party to choose between ACA subsidies and expanded Medicare benefits.

Differences between Manchin and Sinema: Manchin is on board with rolling back ineffective GOP tax breaks, but Sinema is not. Sinema wants to tackle the climate crisis, but Manchin does not. Manchin has endorsed putting Medicare drug negotiations in the bill, but Sinema reportedly remains skeptical. A source close to Biden told Politico last week, "So, like where the hell is the overlap? How do you land that?"

The Benefits Window: There's growing talk about providing fuller funding for many of these initiatives, but shrinking the overall price tag by limiting the benefits window. In other words, paying for a benefit for five years costs less than paying for that same benefit for 10 years. Success or failure may come down to one question: More programs over less time, or fewer programs over more time?

Immigration: Democratic leaders eager to include immigration provisions in the final bill have hit several roadblocks, but they're not done trying.

It's likely to be an interesting week. Watch this space.