CHN: Negotiations Continue on Build Back Better Package and Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill

Democrats in Congress continue to negotiate among themselves and with President Biden to try to reach a deal on a Build Back Better package that can secure all 50 Democratic and Independent votes in the Senate. The Senate package is expected to be dramatically scaled back – by as much as half of the total investments included in the House bill – resulting in program benefits being cut in scope, shortened in length, and/or eliminated altogether. The cuts come largely from the need to garner support from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) who have insisted on reducing the size of the bill. Even with these reductions, the final bill will make major investments likely to reduce child poverty by 40 percent, expand access to health care, create millions of jobs, and promote broadly shared economic security.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had set an informal deadline of Oct. 31 to vote on both a negotiated Build Back Better package and the separate bipartisan infrastructure bill, since the authorization for federal highway funding (included in the infrastructure package) expires the same day. It is unclear, however, if they will be able to meet that deadline for voting on both packages. Progressive House members have insisted that the Build Back Better provisions need to be agreed to by the Senate, at least in detailed negotiations if not yet a vote, before taking up the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

At this writing, below are just a few of the possible compromises being negotiated in the Senate Build Back Better package:

Health care: The Senate bill will likely not fully expand Medicare to include vision, dental, and hearing benefits because of objections from Sens. Manchin and Sinema, though President Biden suggested it may include $800 vouchers to help pay for dental care, and Sen. Sinema has expressed an interest in some form of hearing coverage. Sen. Sinema has also objected to allowing the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, but some form of prescription drug negotiations appear to be under consideration. It seems possible that the bill will include provisions to close the Medicaid coverage gap by providing a pathway to coverage for more than 2 million low-income people in the 12 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but they are likely to last several years rather than being made permanent. Also uncertain is the increase it will provide for Medicaid home- and community-based services (HCBS); the House bill would provide $190 billion over 10 years, while the Biden plan called for $400 billion over eight years; there were reports that funding of over $200 billion would be included.

Child care and paid leave: The Senate-negotiated bill could provide just four weeks of paid family and medical leave for all U.S. workers, down from 12 weeks in the House bill. Sen. Manchin has said this benefit should have an income cap tied to it. Advocates are pushing back, noting that additional paperwork involved with receiving benefits means fewer people who really need the benefit will receive it. They also note that the benefits are already scaled, with a higher portion of earnings replacement for the lowest income earners. At this point, it appears as though free universal preschool free for 3- and 4-year-olds will remain in the bill.

Low-income tax credits: The Senate bill may extend the American Rescue Plan’s Child Tax Credit (CTC) increase (to $3,000-$3,600 per child) for 1 year, rather than to 2025 as provided in the House bill and Biden plan, but it will likely ensure children in the poorest families will be able to claim the full CTC on a permanent basis. While Sen. Manchin and some Republicans have called for a work requirement to be added to the Child Tax Credit, advocates adamantly oppose this, and President Biden expressly opposed a work requirement in his recent town hall in Baltimore. It is unclear if the negotiated package will retain House provisions that allow immigrant children with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) to qualify for the CTC again or make permanent the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) increase for people without dependents.

Housing: The Senate package is expected to significantly cut the $327 billion in affordable housing included in the House bill, possibly down to $100 billion or less, though there is a major push for funding for rental vouchers, public housing maintenance and the Housing Trust Fund to be about $200 billion. The House investments would sharply cut homelessness and housing instability.

Immigration reform/citizenship: Democrats are preparing a third proposal after the Senate Parliamentarian twice ruled that a pathway to citizenship cannot be pursued under the special rules of the reconciliation process, which is being used to allow the Build Back Better legislation to be enacted with only a simple majority in the Senate. This “Plan C” would provide five-year work permits and deportation protection to undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for at least a decade. Some are urging the Democratic leadership in the Senate to overturn the Parliamentarian’s recommendation if no version of immigration reform is approved for inclusion in the reconciliation bill. The House proposal included a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, people with Temporary Protected Status, and essential workers, including farm workers.

Hunger/food and nutrition: The House bill invests nearly $35 billion in additional funding for Child Nutrition Programs; expands the number of schools that would be able to offer free meals to all students, helping nearly 9 million students; extends Summer EBT nationwide for students who receive free or reduced-price school meals; and provides funding to increase access to healthier foods. Anti-hunger advocates are continuing to press for no less than these provisions, and the final outcome remains uncertain.

Climate and the environment: The $150 billion in the House bill for a Clean Electricity Performance Program that would require utility companies to use more sustainable fuel sources is likely out of the Senate package due to objections from Sen. Manchin. Negotiators are seeking agreement on alternative measures that would help the U.S. meet emissions goals. President Biden wants to be able to announce forward movement on this at the Glasgow climate summit starting this coming weekend.

Tax justice/fair revenues: Sen. Sinema said she opposes any increases in tax rates for corporations or the wealthy, killing for now the Democrats’ hopes of rolling back the 2017 Trump tax cuts, which included rate reductions. This was a key component of how the Democrats planned to pay for the package, putting more programs on the chopping block. However, Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) has developed a billionaires’ income tax proposal, which would raise about $250 billion through taxes on holdings such as stocks, art, or property. It would target 700 billionaires and those earning $100 million a year for three years in a row. This new tax has been okayed by Sens. Sinema and Manchin. Other revenues have to be finalized, but there is optimism that negotiators will be able to assemble a package big enough to cover the cost of the Build Back Better investments.

Education: While the Senate bill is expected to provide free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds over a 10-year period, it likely will not provide two years of free community college as President Biden wanted. Instead, there may be an increase in Pell grants (college aid targeted to students with low/moderate incomes).

For more information about what is in the House version of the Build Back Better Act, see the October 11 Human Need Report.

Advocates continue to fight to include in the Build Back Better package as much as possible of the major advances approved in House committees, insisting that the more comprehensive House bill is needed now more than ever. They also note, however, that even with proposed cuts, a negotiated smaller package could still mean historic investment in many areas and could still significantly reduce poverty.