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Senate Democrats pull all-nighter to advance $3.5 trillion budget plan that will test their party’s unity

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 11, 2021

WASHINGTON – After a marathon session that began the previous afternoon, Senate Democrats approved a $3.5 trillion budget framework over universal GOP opposition early Wednesday morning. The new plan paves the way for legislation that would raise taxes on corporations and the richest Americans to fund an array of Democratic priorities, including combating climate change and making health care, child care and education more affordable.

The final vote, which came just before 4 a.m. after 14 hours of debate and largely symbolic votes, kicked off a legislative process that will test the Democratic Party’s unity as committees flesh out their respective parts of the massive spending package. Just hours after the vote, two moderate Senate Democrats said they couldn’t support the $3.5 trillion price tag, while progressives in both the House and Senate have said they would support nothing less.

The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. – would get $726 billion according to the budget blueprint to address some of her party’s biggest priorities. Those include universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, child care subsidies, tuition-free community college and increased funding for Pell grants for college students.

“As we get to work to hammer out the details of this historic bill, I’m thinking first and foremost about Washington state workers and families,” Murray said in a statement. “By adopting this budget resolution, we took a major step towards enacting a once-in-a-generation investment in the building blocks that every family needs to succeed.”

Democrats’ plan would extend the monthly child tax credit payments most families started getting in July, which are now set to expire at the end of the year. Other provisions aim to make housing more affordable, create a national paid family and medical leave program and expand Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing care.

Efforts to support clean energy production would include increasing funding to the Department of Energy’s national labs, including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland and the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls.

The vote came less than 24 hours after a wide majority of senators, including 19 Republicans, approved $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, pipes, broadband and other infrastructure projects across the country.

Democrats have sought to connect the two pieces of legislation, but they have also come to represent two sides of their party: moderates who want to find common ground with Republicans and progressives eager to use their party’s control of the House, Senate and White House to enact sweeping legislation.

“The budget framework we passed will help make Washingtonians’ lives better by making historic investments in affordable housing, child care, education, and the fight against climate change,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement. “There’s more work to do, but between the budget resolution and the infrastructure package, we are on our way to a stronger economy and more jobs.”

Democrats plan to use a process called budget reconciliation to sidestep the 60-vote majority needed to pass most legislation in the Senate. That would require all 50 senators in their caucus to vote for the budget resolution – with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote. But on Wednesday, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two centrist Democrats, threatened to withhold their support unless the bill’s total cost is reduced.

Meanwhile, progressives in the House have said they won’t vote for the bipartisan infrastructure package unless the Senate also passes the Democrats-only budget resolution. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle Democrat who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told the top House and Senate Democrats in a letter Tuesday the majority of her group’s 96 members agree with that position.

Republicans have lambasted the budget resolution, which aims to undo some of the tax cuts GOP senators passed in 2017 over Democrats’ objections, using the same budget reconciliation process. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said in a statement the Democrats’ spending blueprint would “transition the United States from a capitalist country to a socialist one.”

“Despite soaring inflation and a surging federal deficit, the Democrats will raise taxes and spend Americans’ money to enact their $3.5 trillion far-left wish-list that puts millions more people on the federal dole,” Risch said. “Big Government is not the answer to our problems. Abandoning the solid capitalist foundation that made the United States the strongest and most successful country in history for the false promises of socialist prosperity is an indefensible mistake.”

President Joe Biden and his congressional allies have pledged not to raise taxes on small businesses, family farms or anyone who makes less than $400,000 a year, instead paying for their sweeping social programs with tax hikes on only the highest-income taxpayers and corporations, and by cracking down on tax evasion.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican who represents Eastern Washington, said in a statement, “Instead of continuing to mortgage our children’s futures with excessive government spending, we should focus on investing in infrastructure solutions that get real results for the people of Eastern Washington.”

The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is charged with the budget plan’s tax provisions. Those include raising taxes paid on both income and capital gains by the wealthiest Americans, plus instituting a global minimum tax rate to prevent companies from moving their business to overseas “tax havens.” Democrats also want to restore funding to the Internal Revenue Service to beef up enforcement of tax avoidance.

Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, warned in a speech on the Senate floor Monday that the combination of tax hikes and government spending could worsen inflation and hurt economic growth.

“We would do the American people a disservice if we mortgaged their future while undermining the foundations of their past success,” Crapo said. “We should instead be building on time-proven, pro-growth policies, not reversing them to fund a reckless spending spree.”

The House will return from its annual summer recess Aug. 23, nearly a month ahead of schedule, to vote on the Democrats-only legislation and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. While Democrats don’t need GOP votes to pass the two packages, it remains unclear if the Democratic Party itself will settle on legislation all its members can get behind.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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