The failure of plans to include climate and tax laws in a bill that Democrats can pass by a 51 vote through the Senate this summer has sparked a scramble among Democrats to squeeze other priorities into the package.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) says she wants money for more COVID-19 vaccines and therapies, which would cost at least $10 billion.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is urging money to fund international COVID-19 vaccination efforts, which are expected to cost an additional $5 billion.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants to expand the language of prescription drug reform to include more drugs.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is still calling for more money to be spent on affordable housing, a need that is becoming more urgent due to rising mortgage and rent costs.
And Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a close Biden ally, is still pushing for tens of billions of dollars to fund long-term health care for the elderly and disabled.
The competing priorities will clash over the next two weeks as Democrats make a final push to pass a fiscal consolidation package before the August recess.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (DN.Y.) intends to pass it early next month to thwart the hike in healthcare premiums that is expected to start in mid-August.
When negotiations resumed earlier this summer, Democrats had hoped the reconciliation package would include climate and tax provisions, and negotiated the components with Senator Joe Manchin (DW.Va.). But earlier this month, Manchin dashed those hopes, saying he would “clearly” support only a slim package.
Schumer and Manchin have agreed to move a slimmed-down package that includes prescription drug reform and a two-year extension of the Affordable Care Act’s premium subsidies.
This package would bring in net sales of $240 billion to $260 billion.
The influx of new revenue has Democratic senators lining up to fund their top priorities.
Murray said she would “love to see the COVID-19 relief in the package.”
“We have to deal with COVID,” she said. “We’re going to have a surge again and we’re not ready.”
“We know that the new variants are coming, we know that we are not prepared. We know we don’t have the vaccines, the tests and everything else we need. We need to raise the funding,” she added.
Murray is eager to get funding for the reconciliation bill as Republicans say there’s little chance of passing another COVID-19 package under regular order, though Schumer and Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) approved one in March Negotiated a $10 billion compromise measure.
Political dynamics have changed since then, said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership team.
“I don’t think so,” he said when asked about the prospect of getting 60 votes for new coronavirus relief legislation.
Manchin has said he wants about half of the money raised from the reconciliation package to go toward deficit reduction, but that was a demand he made when he and Schumer were still negotiating tax increases to pay for climate-related provisions.
He declined to say Thursday whether he could support more money for COVID-19 vaccines, therapy and testing in the reconciliation package, telling The Hill, “No comment.”
Sanders is pushing to expand the prescription drug reform package to give Medicare more bargaining power to lower the cost of a broader range of drugs.
The pending compromise legislation would allow Medicare to first negotiate lower prices for 10 drugs and later expand its powers to 20 drugs. It would also cap the cost price for consumers at $2,000.
“The American people are very upset that we pay by far the highest prescription drug prices in the world, in some cases ten times as much. I think they want a bold initiative and we’ll see what we can do to make that happen,” he said.
Brown said he didn’t give up on getting more money for affordable housing, which was supposed to be a key part of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, until Manchin steadily narrowed it down to prescription drug reform and a short-term extension of affordable care subsidies act.
“We held a hearing on housing [Thursday.] I don’t know what the odds are, but I always agitate for it,” he said.
Rising mortgage rates have made it increasingly difficult for America’s middle and working class to buy homes, and rent costs have risen steadily along with interest rates.
Brown pointed out at the Banking Committee hearing that recent cost increases have forced an estimated 4 million families out of their homes and that average rents topped $2,000 in May.
“We have underinvested in our homes and communities for decades. Now we see the consequences,” he said.
However, Manchin has been cool, at least so far, when it comes to spending tens of billions of dollars on affordable housing.
Casey, who represents a battleground state in the Senate that could determine whether Democrats retain the Senate majority, said he still wants to include money for long-term home health care.
Casey argued last year that Congress needed to spend at least $250 billion to help people stuck at home due to age, illness or infirmity, but now he’s struggling to get whatever he can.
“There are several things I wish for, particularly home and community-based services. There are some possibilities, some options that we could have that would not be the $150 billion that we had 50 votes for in December, but a version of that,” he said.
“I spoke to Sen. Schumer and Sen. Manchin about this,” he added.
Casey said prescription drug reform would raise around $300 billion, which could help fund his goals.
“Put me there hoping there’s an opening,” he said. “We’ll continue to work on that to see and it will be this first week of August where we look at that.”
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Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic thinker, said he and his allies still hope something, anything, can be done to address climate change.
“I know talks are happening, but I don’t know if anything is moving,” he said.
“For us, if there’s going to be any additional spending, climate, climate, climate is our priority,” he added. “If that’s not there, there are many other parts. I know there is housing, I know there is COVID. It could be other things.”