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Democrats face two familiar obstacles in the home stretch to pass Biden’s agenda

Roar writer Aneela Aslam on how President Joe Biden’s biggest obstacle to passing his ambitious and popular domestic agenda comes from some within his own party

US President Joe Biden’s social spending package, known as the Build Back Better Act, has finally been passed by the House of Representatives after weeks of deliberation and delay. It now must be passed by the US Senate before being signed by President Biden. The bill, central to Biden’s domestic agenda, has been dwindled down from the original $3.5 trillion price tag to a measly $1.75 trillion to appease moderate members of the Democratic Party. The $1.75 trillion will be spent across ten years and is mostly paid for by new taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

The bill is also known as the “reconciliation package” as it will be passed through a special rule called budget reconciliation which allows Democrats to bypass the 60-vote supermajority threshold needed to pass most legislation in the US Senate; Democrats currently only have 50 votes, the bare minimum for a Senate majority. Reconciliation has limits though, it can only be used twice a year and just for spending or taxation policy, nothing else. 60-vote supermajorities are extremely rare, occurring only once in the last forty years when Barack Obama led Democrats to a landslide victory in 2008. This allowed him to pass consequential legislation, such as the Affordable Care Act. 

Centrist Democrats, including Senators Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema have been highly influential in crafting the bill. Since Democrats only have a slim majority in Congress and Republicans are unified in their opposition, they need to get almost all of their members on board. After many weeks of negotiations and delays, the House finally passed the bill by a narrow margin of 220-213, with all Republicans voting against it. 

The Build Back Better act was designed to fulfil Biden’s key campaign promises and boost his approval ratings which fell precipitously in the fall as America saw a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and rising inflation. The package was pushed by Democrats in an attempt to combat and reverse the damage done to the economy by former President Donald Trump and, in the longer-term, conservative economics pushed and implemented since Ronald Reagan’s administration. 

The reconciliation package would be funded by increased taxes. The bill proposed would strengthen the frayed structure of current social welfare schemes to address decades of soaring economic inequality caused by trickle-down economics. Some key features of the package when presented included an increase in paid parental leave, child-tax credits and Medicare coverage expansions. Also, more affordable and accessible access to education and strict policies to combat climate change. 

Despite being overwhelmingly popular with the American public, key features of the original $3.5 trillion plan that have been heavily disputed between moderate and progressive Democrats are paid parental leave of 12 weeks, the expansion of the coverage of Medicare and policies to combat climate change. Free childcare and child tax-credits also garnered concerns from opponents of the package.  

Biden’s key opponent in getting his social reconciliation package passed has been Senator for West Virginia, Joe Manchin who has dictated most of the amendments and cuts to the bill. Manchin has self-described as a “moderate conservative Democrat” who has frequently clashed with progressive icons in the party, such as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. With that image, he’s been able to continue winning elections in a state where Donald Trump won almost 70% of the vote. 

Specifically, Manchin’s strong opposition to the climate change proposals in the bill is due to West Virginia being the second-largest coal producer in the US. Manchin also claimed that the climate policies were heavily irresponsible, commenting to CNN that he was “very, very disturbed” by them. However, Manchin’s claims that he has righteous reasons for objecting to the bill are incorrect. A look at Manchin’s own finances and financial ties demonstrate how he stood to profit by freezing the progress on the bill. Machin’s coal brokerage company, Enersystems, means he has benefited from rising coal prices due to him blocking the bill’s plan to decrease the demand for coal. 

In turn, Manchin’s actions will lead to low-income families suffering in his own state more; West Virginia is known for its third-world level poverty. Due to his influence in slashing relief funds for those who require them, a proposed $1 billion in funding for low-income and moderate families to gain coverage through the National Flood Insurance Programme was decreased to just $600 million. This is ironic considering Manchin’s own state has been described as being “battered” by the climate crisis and, in 2016, 23 people were killed in a flood in West Virginia. As the Guardian puts it “the US senator is blocking legislation that would demand better of the dirty energy companies that make up his investment portfolio”. So as Manchin opposes “hand-outs” and uses the worry of economic instability as a front to his constant rejection of the agenda, he neglects to mention how he is happy to line his and his investor’s pockets, at the continued suffering of the very people he represents.

Similar remarks can be made of the Democratic Senator from Arizona, Kirsten Sinema, as she has been a stumbling block to Biden’s social spending plans, alongside Manchin. Sinema is the antithesis of Manchin: the 45-year-old is the first openly bisexual woman to be elected to the Senate and started her political career as a progressive icon in America’s left-wing Green Party. However, since being elected to the Senate in 2018 to represent Arizona, a formerly conservative state that shifted Democratic due to anti-Trump backlash, she has towed a decidedly centrist line and bucked her party on major issues. Her rebellious voting pattern was first put on notice back in March this year, when she voted against a highly-popular measure to raise the national minimum wage. 

Both Manchin and Sinema are purely motivated by corporate interests. Sinema especially successfully killed the Medicare drug pricing program in the social reconciliation package despite campaigning on a pledge to reduce drug costs. A pharmaceutical lobby (phRMA) has spent $1.2 million to contributing to Sinema’s re-election campaign in Arizona since September. Increasing the perspective that her reasoning is not “fiscal responsibility” or concern for economic instability that comes with social spending bills. Sinema’s main concerns are the interest of her donors.

Sinema has spent the better of almost two months dodging reporters’, President Biden’s and other Democrats’ questions on what she opposes in the bill and why. Instead, she cites “fiscal responsibility” as her reasoning. Whilst playing coy on her real opinion on the package, she has gained attention for her casual dress sense in the Senate, including wearing denim. If Sinema thinks that her denim dress style makes her more relatable to voters, she would be incorrect. Her politics is anything but popular as Democratic-leaning voters give her low marks in the polls. She claims to be mimicking the “maverick” style of former Republican Senator John McCain, an icon in Arizona who had a reputation for putting country above party. In 2017, he dramatically killed then-President Trump’s signature policy to repeal Obamacare. However, unlike McCain, Sinema’s maverick streak is only to please her corporate donors not uphold principles. 

Both Manchin and Sinema are moderate Democrats that will likely face challenging re-election campaigns. For them they choose to oppose a piece of legislation that could gain them votes, seems nonsensical. Manchin and Sinema joining the Republicans is highly unlikely; both were vehemently critical of former President Trump which makes the GOP no more hospitable to them. Their opposition to the bill is solely motivated by corporate interests. What’s worse is that Manchin hails from a state where his constituents rely on federal aid for 33.3% of personal income last year while those in more affluent liberal states, like California and New York, relied on much less.

Sinema and Manchin’s power is explained by Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate. Currently, the Senate has a tie, with 50 Democrats and Republicans, but the former party gets the majority due to Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tie-breaking vote with her party. However, this means that effectively each Democratic senator’s vote counts as a veto. Therefore, without the support of all Senators, legislation cannot be passed in the chamber.

In order to ensure that his presidency is not derailed by Manchin and Sinema, Biden had to considerably cut his social spending plans from $3.5 trillion to just $1.75 trillion.  

The official $1.75 trillion package passed through the House of Representatives includes: 

  • $555 billion for clean energy and climate investments. 
  • $400 billion for childcare, as preschool is expanded to be universal for 3-4 year olds it also plans to limit childcare costs to 7% of family income.  
  • The expansion of Medicare to cover hearing. 
  • Extension of child tax credit from 2019, COVID-19 relief bill to 2022. The white house will provide up to $3,600 in tax cuts per child for more than 35 million families.  
  • 4 weeks of paid leave for medical or family purposes. 
  • $100 billion to reform America’s immigration system. 
  • $150 billion to build 1 million worth of affordable housing. 

The amendments to the bill revised the initial plan to expand Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing care to just hearing to appease Manchin’s concerns. Additionally, the original 12 weeks of family leave were removed but then reintroduced as just 4 weeks, still considerably less than almost every other developed country. Two years of free community college was axed from the bill and was replaced by an expansion of the Pell Gant aid for low-income students. A watered-down plan to reduce drug prices that Senator Sinema agreed to was also included though it’s questionable whether it will be enough given America’s sky-high drug costs compared to other nations.

Biden intends to pay for his economic agenda through increased taxation, and the White House claims the taxes present in the bill will raise just under $2 trillion to cover the $1.75 trillion required over ten years for the bill. For the record, the independent Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would add about $250 billion to the deficit over ten years with those new revenue streams accounted for. However, that’s actually fairly negligible as the Republicans’ tax cut back in 2017 was projected to add $1.9 trillion to the deficit. 

Now that the bill has passed through the House of Representatives it has to be passed in the Senate before being signed by President Biden. This is where the stakes for Biden’s future lie as there is still no confirmation that Manchin and Sinema will vote in favour of the package. As the Thanksgiving holiday break for Congress ends, the bill could be voted on as early as December 13th. While both Manchin and Sinema support passing a reconciliation bill, it’s unclear whether they support this version. If they don’t, Democrats may have to keep chipping away at popular policies, potentially costing them votes in the future.
 

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