Democrats Float $6 Trillion Plan Amid Talks on Narrower Infrastructure Deal

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Democrats are considering moving unilaterally on a sweeping economic package even as bipartisan talks continue on a smaller infrastructure bill.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, discussed how Democrats might take unilateral action on an infrastructure package during a meeting with Democratic members of the Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday.
Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Emily Cochrane

June 17, 2021

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats have begun privately weighing a sprawling economic package that could be as large as $6 trillion even as a bipartisan group of senators works to draw support for a much narrower infrastructure plan that would devote $579 billion in new money to fund physical public works projects.

The details of both plans remain in flux, as lawmakers work to maneuver some, if not all, of President Biden’s economic agenda around the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate and past razor-thin margins in the House. For now, the divergent efforts are proceeding in parallel, with centrist senators in both parties pushing forward on their compromise proposal and Democrats preparing to use the fast-track budget process known as reconciliation to avoid a Republican filibuster of their far larger plan.

“The truth is both tracks are moving forward very well, and both tracks need each other,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. “We want to work with our Republican colleagues on infrastructure where we have common ground, and Democrats believe we have other priorities that the Senate must consider above and beyond a bipartisan infrastructure bill.”

The breadth of those priorities became clearer in a meeting Mr. Schumer convened with Democrats on the Budget Committee on Wednesday, where lawmakers discussed taking unilateral action on a package that could be as large as $6 trillion, with at least half of it paid for, should the bipartisan talks fail to produce a deal, according to four people familiar with the discussion. The details of the emerging discussions were reported earlier by Politico.

Democrats discussed potentially including measures to expand Medicare, including lowering the eligibility age to 60 and expanding benefits for all beneficiaries to cover dental, hearing and vision care, according to three of the people, who disclosed details on condition of anonymity because they were still in flux. Broadening Medicare has long been a priority of Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and chairman of the Budget Committee.

“What we are working right now is on a budget that builds on the proposals that the president has brought to us,” Mr. Sanders said on Thursday, adding that he wanted provisions to address climate change and tax increases for wealthy corporations and individuals. “We’ve got to deal with the structural problems facing America.”

Democrats also discussed incorporating revisions to immigration law in the package, Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, told reporters on Wednesday, calling it a “big-picture” discussion given that the strict budgetary rules governing the reconciliation process could force lawmakers to modify or jettison priorities in the package.

But Democrats acknowledged that a final package might be smaller and narrower than the ambitious proposals discussed on Wednesday, given that all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats and nearly every House Democrat will have to support the measure for it to become law. Republicans have long resisted the scope of spending Mr. Biden and other Democrats have pushed for, and it is unlikely they will support the reconciliation package.

“If you’re doing a package like this and try to get 50 out of 50, there’s two ways to get 50 out of 50: take out things that people don’t like, or add in things that they like so much that they’re willing to support things that they don’t love,” Mr. Kaine said.

While liberal Democrats have urged their leaders to abandon discussions with Republicans, moderate Democrats have been reluctant to give up a bipartisan agreement to fund roads, bridges, waterways, broadband and other physical projects. They have spent the week huddling with Republicans to hammer out the details of the $579 billion in new spending that would be part of an overall package that would cost $1.2 trillion over eight years, including expected continuation of existing federal programs.

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From left, Senators Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, and Rob Portman and Mitt Romney, both Republicans, have been part of a centrist group working on a bipartisan infrastructure package.
Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Mr. Schumer met with the moderate Democrats on Thursday to discuss their progress, a day after the bipartisan group announced that it had drawn the support of 21 senators for its tentative framework. While the group has not made the plan public, an outline circulating on Capitol Hill said it would include $110 billion in new funding for roads and bridges, $65 billion for broadband, $25 billion for airports and $55 billion for water infrastructure.

Ten moderate senators who spearheaded the talks — including Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah, both Republicans, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a Democrat — huddled with a broader bipartisan group on Wednesday. Soon after, the group joined five Democrats and six Republicans in professing support for “this bipartisan framework that provides a historic investment in our nation’s core infrastructure needs without raising taxes.”

“They’re off to a great start — the details will matter, as they put it together,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, one of the Republicans who met with the group this week, but did not sign onto the framework. “I think what most people were signing on to yesterday, it was an overall structure proposal, and I think it’s encouraging.”

The group’s draft also included ways to finance the plan, including public-private partnerships, repurposing unspent coronavirus relief funds and adjusting user fees for drivers. It also proposed reducing what is known as the “tax gap” by giving the I.R.S. more resources to crack down on wealthy individuals and corporations that are not paying their taxes, something for which the Biden administration has signaled support.

The Treasury Department estimated that giving the I.R.S. $80 billion over a decade would yield $700 billion in additional revenue. The lawmakers are talking about giving the I.R.S. an additional $64 billion over eight years, according to a Senate aide.

The draft also includes adding a surcharge for electric vehicles, which some states have employed to make up for declining gas tax revenue. The White House has resisted indexing the gas tax to inflation, as well as other user fees and repurposing funds from the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan that became law in March.

Aides stressed that the draft did not reflect the group’s final proposal, and could change to win the support needed to become law. It offered scant specifics of how much money each proposal would raise and reflected the challenge lawmakers face as they try to raise revenue without increasing tax rates.

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said top White House officials who met with the moderate group on Wednesday were encouraged by the details the senators shared, not all of which were reflected in the draft proposal.

Alan Rappeport, Margot Sanger-Katz and Annie Karni contributed reporting.

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