With the calendar slipping toward a new deadline, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is saying that “difficult decisions must be made” to trim US President Joe Biden’s expansive plans for reimagining the US’ social service programs and tackling climate change.
The US Democrats are laboring to chisel the US$3.5 trillion package to about US$2 trillion, a still massive proposal.
With no votes to spare, they must somehow satisfy the party’s competing moderate and progressive lawmakers needed for any deal.
It is all raising tough questions that Biden and his party are rushing to answer by the deadline for passage, which is Oct. 31.
Should Biden keep the sweep of his proposals — free childcare and community college; dental, vision and hearing aid benefits for seniors — but for just a few years?
Or should the ideas be limited to a few, key health and education programs that could become more permanent?
Should the climate change effort go bold — a national clean energy standard — or stick with a more immediate, if incremental, strategy?
“The fact is, that if there are fewer dollars to spend, there are choices to be made,” Pelosi said on Tuesday at the US Capitol.
Republicans are dead set against the package, so Biden and his party are left to deliberate among themselves, with all eyes still on two key holdouts, US senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, whose votes are crucial in the evenly divided US Senate.
Time is growing short for the president on what has been his signature domestic policy initiative, first unveiled in March and now having consumed much of his fitful first year in office.
Biden’s approval rating is down and impatience is growing, particularly among US House of Representative lawmakers heading into tough elections and eager to show voters an accomplishment — unlike US senators, whose staggered six-year terms leave only some of them facing re-election next year.
Biden agrees that “this is really the point where decisions need to be made,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday.
Conversations are quietly under way with Manchin and Sinema, who continue to infuriate their colleagues by holding up the package, while still not making fully clear what they are willing to support.
“The president’s view is that we’re continuing to make progress, we’re having important discussions about what a package that is smaller than US$3.5 trillion would look like,” Psaki said.
Also on Tuesday, the House pushed through a short-term increase to the nation’s debt limit, ensuring that the US government can continue fully paying its bills into December and temporarily averting an unprecedented default.
The US$480 billion increase in the country’s borrowing ceiling cleared the Senate last week on a party-line vote.
The House approved it swiftly so that Biden could sign it into law this week.
US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen had said that steps to stave off a default on the country’s debts would be exhausted by Monday, and from that point, the department would soon be unable to fully meet the government’s financial obligations.
A default would have immense fallout on global financial markets built on the bedrock safety of US government debt.
Routine government payments to social welfare beneficiaries, disabled veterans and active-duty military personnel would also be called into question.
However, the relief provided by passage of the legislation is only to be temporary, forcing the US Congress to revisit the issue in December — a time when lawmakers would also be laboring to complete federal spending bills and avoid a damaging government shutdown.
The year-end backlog raises risks for both parties and threatens a tumultuous close to Biden’s first year in office.
“I’m glad that this at least allows us to prevent a totally self-made and utterly preventable economic catastrophe as we work on a longer-term plan,” US Representative Jim McGovern said.
US Republicans signaled that the next debt limit debate would not be easier and warned Democrats not to expect their help.
“Unless and until Democrats give up on their dream of a big-government, socialist America, Republicans cannot and will not support raising the debt limit,” US Representative Tom Cole said.
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