Democrats see Christmas goal slipping away

Sens. Sinema, Schumer and Manchin
Sens. Sinema, Schumer and Manchin
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The goal for Democrats was to pass President Biden's sweeping climate and social spending package by Christmas, but that is slipping away as the Senate bogs down in one time-consuming fight after another.

Democratic senators are growing increasingly doubtful that Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) will be able to meet his Christmas deadline because several major disagreements are holding up the Build Back Better Act, including a fight over lifting the cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions.

Schumer told reporters last week that his goal is to bring the $2 trillion bill to the floor the week of Dec. 13, but that timeline will be tough to meet because negotiators have a lot left to work out and Congress will also have to raise the debt ceiling by Dec. 15, which will distract attention from Biden's agenda.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a key player in the debate, is predicting to colleagues the legislation will likely wait until after the holiday season. Senate Democratic aides say passage of the bill in January is looking more realistic than before Christmas.

"I think there are issues with the parliamentarian's office," said one Democratic aide. "I don't think there's the person power in the parliamentarian's office to get everything done quickly."

"It's a chokepoint," the aide added.

Schumer last week said he would bring the legislation to the floor as soon as Democrats and Republicans finish meeting with the parliamentarian to complete "the technical and procedural fixes necessary for reconciliation."

Democratic and Republican aides expressed admiration for parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, who has slogged through the heavy workload while battling breast cancer. They say she has had to miss some time in the office because of her health.

A second Democratic aide, however, said getting the bill done by Christmas is still possible, despite the huge amount of work facing the parliamentarian and other challenges.

"Everyone is being respectful of the parliamentarian and we believe we're still on track with our timeline of getting this bill done before Christmas," the aide said.

Adding to the uncertainty, maverick Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has expressed worries about inflation and hasn't yet said whether he'll even vote to begin debate on the package. He made it clear earlier this year that he wanted to take a "strategic pause" to see how the economy reacts to the money being pumped into it by Congress.

Manchin specifically raised concerns about another wave of COVID-19 infections and the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant, which sent the stock market tumbling last week.

Republicans are hoping that Manchin will try to cut down the overall cost of the bill after the Congressional Budget Office provides an extended 10-year cost analysis of the legislation, which Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has requested. That unofficial score could show the bill would cost more than $4 trillion if all its provisions are extended.

Another factor that could influence Manchin's thinking is the inflation report that the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release next week for the month of November.

Democratic senators briefed on the talks between Schumer, Manchin, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other key players say it doesn't appear any of the major outstanding issues have been resolved since Congress left town for Thanksgiving - though negotiators did report "progress."

"The things that I'm immediately working on that are unresolved remain unresolved albeit perhaps narrowed or given some added context but I can't point you to any particular thing that's been nailed down. It's pretty amorphous and there are lots of issues," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading advocate for stronger provisions to reduce global-warming emissions.

The bill's climate provisions, a top Biden priority, still need to be worked out in the face of opposition from Manchin, who is worried about the future of West Virginia's coal industry.

Manchin met both with Schumer and McConnell last week in hopes of working out a deal he could support.

Democratic senators say there is also growing opposition within their caucus to a proposal in the House-passed budget reconciliation package that would lift the cap on SALT deductions from $10,000 to $80,000.

"I'm deeply concerned," Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said of the House proposal to dramatically raise the cap and SALT deductions and allow even people who earn millions of dollars a year to benefit.

He said there's a "very large and growing" group of Democrats raising concerns about the House language.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is also balking at giving a big tax break to millionaires.

"I've expressed repeatedly that there are some concerns that this seems [like] SALT done in a way too generous a way," he said. "The arguments that the wealthiest Americans are going to disproportionately benefit with tax cuts in effect because we weren't able to roll back the Trump tax cuts [is] pretty problematic with me."

Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has suggested limiting the deduction to individuals earning $400,000 or less, which may be a problem with Schumer, who represents a state with a high cost of living and has made repealing the SALT cap a top priority.

But there's no consensus yet on how to solve the dispute. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) proposed before the Thanksgiving recess setting an income threshold of $1 million to determine eligibility for the deductions, but other Democrats think that's too high.

The slow pace of pushing legislation through the Senate is adding to the difficulty of getting Biden's climate and social spending plan passed in the next few weeks.

Other must-pass bills that were supposed to be wrapped up before the $2 trillion budget reconciliation bill came to the floor have turned out to be tougher to move than expected.

Schumer tried to pass the annual defense authorization bill before the Thanksgiving recess but instead it got caught up in a multiweek delay because of a partisan fight over amendments.

He tried to move it again last week but it ran into an objection from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who insisted on a vote on his amendment to bar goods made with Uyghur forced labor from entering the United States.

Now Schumer may be forced to pull the defense bill off the floor altogether.

Democrats ran into unexpected difficult last week when they attempted to move a short-term government funding bill that was expected to be noncontroversial.

A small group of conservatives, including Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) threatened to use all the procedural weapons in their arsenal to string out the bill and force a government shutdown.

While the conservatives were mollified when given a vote on an amendment to defund Biden's vaccine mandate for employers, the brinkmanship is a troubling sign for Democrats about what to expect when they finally attempt to move the climate and social spending package onto the Senate floor.

Conservatives could use a variety of tactics to slow it down, such as forcing the Senate clerks to read aloud every page of the 2,400-page bill.

Schumer also has to give Republicans a vote this week on a resolution to nullify Biden's vaccine mandate on large employers and hammer out an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to raise the debt limit by Dec. 15.

This story was updated at 9:24 a.m.