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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘No one got everything they wanted’: Northwest lawmakers stay on message despite Biden’s scaled-back agenda

President Joe Biden walks in a basement hallway of the Capitol to meet with House Democrats on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.   (Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – After President Joe Biden on Thursday presented a “framework” intended to bring his fragmented party together around his signature “Build Back Better” agenda, Northwest lawmakers stayed on message despite the legislation getting dramatically scaled back from what most Democrats have wanted and Republicans have feared.

In a televised address after he delayed a foreign trip to hold a last-minute meeting with Democrats on Capitol Hill, Biden sought to adjust expectations while still calling the bill to bolster social programs and combat climate change – now priced at about $1.75 trillion, half of its original size – “historic” and “truly consequential.”

“No one got everything they wanted, including me,” Biden said. “But that’s what compromise is. That’s consensus, and that’s what I ran on.”

Negotiations within the Democratic Party have escalated in recent weeks, as the White House has gotten more involved in an effort to bring two centrist Senate Democrats on board without alienating the party’s progressive wing. Those senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have succeeded in stripping major progressive priorities from the bill, but Democratic leaders emphasized Thursday that it would still have broad impacts on Americans’ lives.

“Democrats are putting money back into peoples’ pockets, and we are sending a message to workers and families across the country–you’re not on your own, we’re in this together,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. “I look forward to getting this historic legislation to President Biden’s desk as soon as possible.”

Democratic aides are now scrambling to craft legislation based on Biden’s framework, which would expand access to free preschool for some 6 million toddlers and use subsidies to ensure most families spend no more than 7% of their income on child care. It would also extend the new child tax credit – which since July has sent monthly payments of $250 to $300 per child to all but the wealthiest families – for one more year.

The bill would also extend tax credits to reduce health insurance premiums through the Affordable Care Act through 2025, make housing more affordable in cities and rural areas, improve home-based care for older Americans and people with disabilities and increase funding for higher education.

In addition to the social programs, Biden’s proposal includes investments and tax credits to speed the adoption of clean energy and efforts to make the nation more resilient to wildfires and extreme weather. Those provisions are key as Biden heads to a global climate summit in Scotland on Sunday.

Yet the framework does not include tougher climate provisions favored by progressives, which Manchin opposed. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement the bill would be “the start of a longer effort” to reduce carbon emissions and meet global climate commitments.

Other priorities for Northwest Democrats were also dropped from the framework as the White House cut its total cost by roughly half. One major loss for progressives was a paid family and medical leave program Murray has sought.

“Make no mistake, this framework does not solve every problem we face–far from it,” Murray said in a statement. “It is downright shameful that America is the only developed nation where working people are not guaranteed paid leave if they have a child, get seriously ill, or need to take care of a loved one.”

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington urged her fellow Democrats to add a tax credit that encourages the construction of affordable housing back into the package after it, too, was left out of Biden’s framework.

“This tax credit is bipartisan,” Cantwell said. “It’s worked successfully. I would say it’s one of the most successful programs that we’ve had in the United States for getting affordable housing. Let’s not leave it off the table, let’s put it in this legislation and make sure it gets to the goal line of the President’s desk and is signed into law.”

But with limited money – and Republicans united in their opposition to the bill – Democrats have largely prioritized their own priorities over bipartisan measures.

The framework proposes paying for the $1.75 trillion in spending by raising revenue over 10 years through a range of tax hikes on large companies and the wealthiest individuals, including a 15% minimum corporate tax rate, a 1% surcharge when companies buy back their own stock and an extra tax on multimillionaires and billionaires. It would also increase funding to the Internal Revenue Service to help the agency crack down on tax evasion.

After Sinema objected to proposed increases to capital gains and income tax rates for large corporations and the highest-earning Americans, Democrats have scrambled to come up with other revenue-raising measures that don’t violate Biden’s pledge not to raise taxes on anyone who makes less than $400,000 a year.

Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, warned in a statement that any tax hikes could hurt the U.S. economy.

“From the proposals we’ve seen – which have not and likely will not be publicly and thoroughly vetted – I am extremely concerned about the long-term damage that another outsized round of reckless spending will do to our economy,” Crapo said, calling the framework “a blueprint to recklessly tax and spend our country into fiscal ruin.”

Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents North Idaho, said in an interview the Democrats’ proposal would give the federal government too much power in people’s lives.

“It’s a disaster. It’s the socialization of America,” Fulcher said. “It has very little to do with traditional infrastructure and everything to do with government control.”

According to the White House’s estimates, the framework would generate more revenue than it spends, undermining a common GOP criticism that Democrats are widening the budget deficit. But the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan watchdog group focused on the growing federal debt, has pointed out that while the plan would raise money through tax increases over a decade, much of the spending is set to run out much earlier. Extending programs after they “sunset” would increase the total cost later.

“We’re very encouraged that the Administration would more than pay for its proposed spending and tax breaks,” CRFB President Maya MacGuineas said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the framework relies heavily on the massive gimmick of arbitrary sunsets to make the numbers work.”

Democrats are betting those programs will be popular enough that Congress will be pressured to extend them, even if Republicans take control of the House or Senate in next year’s elections, and Fulcher said he worries that plan may succeed.

“How often do you see a government program that gets put into place that actually goes away?” he said. “If there are things offered to people, people will take them. … And it’s difficult to blame people for taking so-called ‘free stuff.’ The problem is it’s not free, No. 1. No. 2, it’s an addiction.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has been a lead negotiator, said Thursday her caucus supports the framework but needed to see actual legislation, not just Biden’s outline, before they would vote for the separate bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed in August.

“We are with the president in principle, and I think that’s the most important thing,” Jayapal said on MSNBC, adding that “the majority of the Progressive Caucus priorities are in there.”

Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Democrat whose district stretches from the Seattle suburbs to the Canadian border, chairs the moderate New Democrat Coalition and signaled that her group is ready to vote for the bipartisan bill, which would authorize about $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

“New Dems stand firm behind President Biden & the Build Back Better agenda,” DelBene wrote on Twitter. “It’s time to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill & show governance can work again.”