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Dems race to pass social spending plan with $1.7T cost estimate in hand

The House is charging ahead with a vote on President Joe Biden’s expansive social spending bill, set to vote Thursday evening after months of false starts on Democrats’ biggest agenda item.

The vote timing is seen by some as a bit of a Thanksgiving miracle, given many Democrats started the day doubting that the $1.7 trillion legislation would be finished in time for final passage Thursday. But two sign-offs came late in the day — with key moderate holdouts privately sounding optimistic — allowing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team to plow ahead earlier than some in the caucus expected.

Congress’ nonpartisan scorekeeper has now delivered all of the data that moderates have demanded in order to vote, after initially predicting they would finish their analysis on Friday. Democrats also cleared another key hurdle on Thursday, receiving a necessary sign off from the Senate parliamentarian that ensures the bill won’t run afoul of filibuster protections when it moves to the upper chamber.

Pelosi confirmed plans to vote Thursday evening in a letter to Democrats, and then Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) kicked off a hearing to tee up the bill for floor debate and a final vote.

“I have a sneaking suspicion that minds are pretty much made up on the bill in terms of how people will vote,” said McGovern as he started the meeting. The panel met for just 14 minutes.

The Congressional Budget Office’s prediction that the package will add $367 billion to the deficit over a decade is the pivotal data point the majority party has waited for since moderate Democrats refused earlier this month to pass the plan without an official price tag.

But that number does not include possible revenue brought in by increased IRS enforcement, meaning the impact on the federal budget gap could be even less. When accounting for that possible extra cash, the deficit increase could total about $160 billion over 10 years.

The CBO also found that Democrats’ planned expansions of Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare and home health care are roughly paid for by other provisions to curb soaring drug prices — including the repeal of a Trump administration drug rebate rule that never took effect.

The cost of the package is certain to change in the upper chamber. Hundreds of billions of dollars in policies like paid leave and immigration are likely to be altered or axed amid resistance from lawmakers and scrutiny from the Senate parliamentarian, who judges which provisions are compatible with the upper chamber’s rules.

“One wonders what the point is, doesn’t one?” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said about the House scramble for a cost estimate. “I think at the end of the day, it’s important to price out what we’re going to do.”

The nonpartisan budget office estimated Thursday, for example, that expanding Medicare to cover hearing services would cost roughly $36 billion over a decade. But that policy might not survive pushback from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Pelosi and other top Democrats have anxiously awaited both the official price tag — since the independent budget office signaled it would deliver the number by Friday — and the sign off from the Senate parliamentarian that, under the upper chamber’s rules, the bill can pass on a simple majority vote rather than the 60 votes most bills require.

While Democrats on Thursday billed the estimated savings from cracking down on wealthy tax cheats as a win, the CBO’s projections still didn’t yield as much revenue as the Biden administration originally pitched. One reason for the discrepancy: the budget office and the administration feel differently about how consumers will respond to beefed up enforcement, with the CBO believing the rich and corporations won’t be as deterred from cheating as the White House has predicted.

CBO said more aggressive IRS enforcement could bring in $207 billion over a decade, while the White House has predicted almost double that in savings. The difference doesn’t seem likely to endanger support from price-wary centrists, however. And if the administration’s estimate bears itself out, it could bolster Democrats’ arguments that the bill is “paid for.”

“This idea that we’re going to pay for it by going after tax cheats — based on long experience, CBO says that is not true,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said. “So if we’re worried about inflation, just intuitively to me, pumping more money into this economy is going to increase the risk of stagflation. If you wanted a plan to wreck the economy, I’m not sure you could do better than that.”

Even as House lawmakers impatiently awaited details on vote timing — many have planned trips either out of the country or weekend fundraising events before Thanksgiving — Democrats have seen decidedly low drama this week compared to the months of tense standoffs between the party’s progressive and centrist wings.

Instead, much of lawmakers’ attention this week was focused elsewhere, primarily on Democrats’ successful effort to censure Rep. Paul Gosar for a cartoon video he posted that depicted him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But Democrats are now eager for a different set of headlines. This week’s pivotal vote on Biden’s plan to expand the safety net, which caps eight months of infighting, is a fresh chance for party leaders to promote a bill they see as broadly popular.

Despite centrists refusing to back the bill just two weeks ago amid outstanding cost questions, Democratic leaders now feel comfortable they have the votes to muscle the package through the House, even with the party’s razor-thin three vote margin and no expected Republican support.

Before the CBO score, a group of those centrists signaled they would support the legislation’s passage if the nonpartisan analysis of the bill lines up with the White House’s estimate.

“If the scores match up, that’d be the case,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), one of those moderates, when asked if he would be willing to vote Thursday once final estimates were released.

The House cleared the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill earlier this month, a key demand from moderates. Biden signed that legislation Monday.

Between that and having the final cost of the bill in hand, senior Democrats now believe they’ll win over enough of the holdouts. Still, the majority party expects to lose at least one vote: Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), who has continued to complain about some provisions in the bill, such as a tax break that would benefit the wealthy.

Republicans have homed in on that provision — Democrats’ push to raise the cap on state and local tax deductions, known as SALT relief — as a potent political attack. While the effort will provide relief to the middle class in states with high property taxes, analysts say it will also be a significant tax cut for the wealthy, undercutting Democrats’ message of “making the rich pay their fair share.”

Democrats “see the writing on the wall and know this reconciliation bill to be the end of their Democratic majority,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Thursday. He slammed the SALT deduction as “billions to the rich.”

When the House does ultimately vote, it will be one of Congress’s largest bills in history: A roughly $1.75 trillion measure that touches everything from universal pre-K to health care subsidies for low-income Americans and initiatives to combat climate change. And it comes with high political stakes, with Democrats bear-hugging Biden’s agenda as they defend their perilously thin majority going into the midterms.

Alice Miranda Ollstein, Jennifer Scholtes and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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