Jan 19, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Senate Democrats join Biden to pivot Build Back Better strategy

Illustration of a construction sign that reads “Work Ahead” with a symbol of the Capitol.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A growing number of Senate Democrats are urging their colleagues to begin paring back the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better agenda to salvage what they can, abandoning hopes of the transformational to achieve the possible.

Why it matters: Democrats are desperate to notch a win. President Biden's popularity is sagging in the polls, the pandemic is raging and the party's record of passing crucial legislation has been muddled. Biden himself conceded during his news conference Wednesday that passing the parts was more likely than getting the whole.

Driving the news: "I'm confident we can get pieces — big chunks — of the Build Back Better law signed into law," he said.

  • "I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, come back and fight for the rest later."

Reviving BBB is expected to regain center stage after Wednesday's unsuccessful push to pass election reforms.

  • The White House is planning to renew negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) about how to proceed with the bill, Biden's chief of staff Ron Klain told the Wall Street Journal.

What they're saying: The agenda's $555 billion climate provision is seen as a good starting point, given Manchin — the key Senate holdout — has said he thinks they can come to an agreement.

  • “We need to move to pass a package now that has 50 votes," Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) told Axios. "The climate, justice and clean-energy provisions in Build Back Better have been largely worked through and financed, so let’s start there and add any of the other important provisions to support working families that can meet the 50-vote threshold."
  • Markey says the goal is to assemble pieces that can garner the necessary 50 votes to pass via the budget reconciliation process. "We need to move from words to action, negotiation to agreement," he said.
  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told Axios he agrees. "We need to do whatever is possible, and make it as broad and inclusive as we can."

Between the lines: Many members think piecing the separate chunks into one combined, smaller package will be more effective.

  • That's because it's unclear whether they'll have more than one shot to use the budget reconciliation process enabling Senate Democrats to pass the bill at a 51-vote, simple-majority threshold.
  • "The piecemeal effort makes more sense in the House, where majority rules," one Senate Democrat said.
  • There's also been resistance from many members to break up the bill until the very last minute, out of fear premature action would unravel the whole thing.
  • "A lot of it comes down to timing," the senator said.

Yes, but: A huge problem the party still faces is whether the progressive wing would even consider a pared-down package.

Its members favor the ambitious proposals they've long demanded, such as extending the child tax credit. Yet Manchin has maintained his steadfast opposition.

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told Axios: "There hasn't been any caucus-wide discussion with respect to breaking the Build Back Better up."
  • "We still remain hopeful that we're going to be able to find common ground with our Senate colleagues to get as much of the [BBB] as is currently constituted. ... I do think that there's a real pathway to finding common ground with Sen. Manchin," he said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told the Journal: “If we fail, we can come back and try to come forth with a more modest proposal."

  • "I also believe that we have got to start bringing important pieces of legislation — one by one by one — onto the floor. And let the Republicans vote against them. And let Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema vote against them or not, whatever it may be,” Sanders said.
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