President Joe Biden acknowledged publicly for the first time Wednesday that his stalled social safety net and climate change mitigation package may have to be substantially slimmed down.
In a rare press conference, Biden said top priorities including expanded child tax credits that lapsed on Jan. 1 may have to wait for a subsequent legislative push. He also lamented the loss of his proposal to finance two years of free community college, although that provision was dropped earlier from the House-passed budget package.
“I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest later," Biden told reporters. "There’s two really big components that I feel strongly about that I’m not sure I can get in the package. One is the child care tax credit and the other is help for the cost of community colleges."
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., has been the main obstacle on Biden’s side of the aisle to getting the package through the evenly divided Senate, despite budget rules requiring only a simple majority for passage. Manchin scotched a one-year extension of the expanded child credit, calling it a gimmick meant to disguise long-term costs of the popular tax break.
The package’s fate has been unclear since December, though staff-level conversations have continued on how to resurrect the bill. Biden said more than $500 billion for clean energy-related grants and tax incentives might yet survive, as well as the universal prekindergarten proposal he said Manchin supports.
To “come back and fight for the rest later” after passing a slimmed-down bill would likely necessitate a new time-consuming budget reconciliation process, including first adopting a new budget resolution and yet another “vote-a-rama.” Democrats haven’t ruled that out, but they still need to get the original bill done before living to fight again another day.
“I think that’s gonna be the challenge. I think it requires different reconciliation bills,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Wednesday.
And it remains to be seen whether even an initial package is doable, with Manchin telling reporters Wednesday that party leaders haven’t yet approached him on Biden’s “break it up” strategy.
"I haven't talked to anybody about what's going on. I'm just hearing the same thing you're hearing," Manchin said.
In the meantime, Democrats and Republicans need to somehow navigate the fiscal 2022 spending bill deadline, which has been extended to Feb. 18. Tester, a senior appropriator who leads the Defense subcommittee, said he’s hopeful committee leaders will agree by early next week on topline funding allocations and a process for resolving policy disputes.
“I do think time is wasting, and if we don’t get something pretty quick, we’re looking at a [continuing resolution], which is disastrous,” Tester said.
One impetus for a swift appropriations deal may be the need for additional pandemic relief. As soon as next week, the White House is considering submitting a request for more supplemental aid for COVID-19 testing, vaccine distribution and relief for overburdened hospitals, according to sources familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private. More money for Afghanistan could be included, while numerous hard-hit industries and nonprofits are also lobbying for a piece of the pie.
House Democrats have talked about including new pandemic aid in the omnibus package but it wasn’t clear whether there would be enough bipartisan support for that strategy.
“I had thought that it could be possible for us to do a COVID relief package within that [omnibus] bill, but fenced off as emergency spending so it doesn't take away from our other domestic [spending],” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Wednesday.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, are privately discussing a push for aid to help Ukraine guard against a potential Russian invasion, sources said on condition of anonymity. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, recently returned from a congressional trip to Ukraine and said the authorization for security assistance to Ukraine was increased by $50 million over last year in the defense authorization law.
“My hope in the appropriations process is we can do even more,” Portman said.
Herb Jackson, Rachel Oswald and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.