Richard Neal disregards Joe Manchin concerns on cost, input in reviving pet goals in Biden bill

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Congressional Democrats are maneuvering to re-insert paid family leave and other far-left priorities into President Biden’s $1.75 trillion social-welfare bill, brushing aside moderates’ concerns about the price tag and the risk of provoking the same disagreements that have held up a final deal for months.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, pledged to add a federal guarantee of at least four weeks of paid leave in any version of the bill advanced by the House.

 “For far too long, American workers have had to make the impossible choice between providing for their families and caring for them,” said Mr. Neal. “The Ways and Means Committee crafted a policy that will finally give workers and their families the peace of mind of knowing that when disaster strikes, they can rely on paid leave to avoid [a] total crisis.”

Mr. Biden initially proposed a 12-week paid leave guarantee, but that provision was scrapped after opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat and a key swing vote. Mr. Manchin argues that any paid leave proposal should have widespread support and be adequately funded.

“I support it … I just don’t support unpaid leave,” Mr. Manchin said. “That means getting more debt and basically putting more social programs that we can’t pay for, that we’re having problems [with] now. I want to support paid leave, I want to do it in a bipartisan way.”

Negotiations on the bill have bogged down in recent days while Mr. Biden has been traveling overseas. Both the House and Senate are working through revisions of the bill separately with little coordination.

The effect is that both chambers are tailoring the legislation to the needs of their members, but risk crafting a deal that will be unacceptable to the other.

Mr. Manchin’s opposition was enough to kill the proposal once, because Democrats plan to push the spending package along party lines using budget reconciliation. The process allows spending measures to aver the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold and pass by a simple majority. 

Despite that reality, House Democrats did not consult the senator before re-inserting the paid leave into the package. Mr. Neal has defended that decision, claiming the new proposal is sufficiently different and will receive the support of holdouts, especially Mr. Manchin. 

“We do this responsibly, fully paying for the means-tested program,” Mr. Neal said. “This is a matter of financial security, worker productivity, and most of all, humanity.”

House Democrats are similarly operating in their own silo when it comes to tax cuts for wealthy blue- state residents.  

Vulnerable moderate Democrats, specifically from the northeastern and western U.S., are pushing for a full restoration of the Salt and Local Tax (SALT) deduction. The lucrative credit, which was capped to $10,000 by the Trump-era tax reforms, allows individuals to write off certain state and local taxes on their federal returns. 

The deduction is primarily used by residents in coastal states that vote predominantly Democratic and have high state and local tax burdens. 

Moderate Democrats, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, initially wanted to repeal the cap permanently. After significant pushback, the lawmakers are now hoping to raise the cap from $10,000 to $72,500. The hike would be immediate and last throughout the next decade. 

House Democrats are backing the change, while their counterparts in the Senate are working on a separate SALT proposal. 

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, said his version will permanently erase the SALT cap for families making less than $400,000 per year. That version, authored by Mr. Sanders and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, would keep the cap in place for wealthy individuals. 

“It would be absurd and hypocritical to provide the richest people in this country with massive tax breaks,” said Mr. Sanders. “Completely eliminating the cap on state and local tax exemption is regressive and unfair.”

Neither the proposal backed by House Democrats nor the one by Mr. Sanders has received the support of Mr. Manchin or other key swing votes. 

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer is championing a proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs. 

Under the agreement, Medicare would be given the ability to negotiate the price of 10 life-saving drugs starting in 2023. The list of drugs eligible for negotiation would increase over time. 

Seniors would also get a rebate if the price of certain drugs, like insulin, rises higher than the rate of inflation. The proposal further caps out-of-pocket costs for Medicare beneficiaries to $2,000 per year.

“For years, skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs have plagued millions of seniors and American families to the point that Americans spend far more on prescription drugs per capita than other wealthy nations,” said Mr. Schumer. 

The proposal was written in hopes of garnering the support of another key moderate Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. While Ms. Sinema has offered tentative support for the deal, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Manchin or a cadre of moderate House Democrats will jump on board. 

The measure faces long odds in the House, given that Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California can lose only the support of three members of her majority. In the past, nearly a dozen House Democrats have expressed skepticism of prescription drug pricing schemes. 

There are also strong concerns that all of the new programs proposed will significantly raise the price tag of the overall bill.

Mr. Biden initially proposed the package run upwards of $3.5 trillion and include long-sought liberal priorities such as free community college tuition. After moderates expressed their concern, the White House was forced to whittle the bill down to $1.75 trillion — a figure yet to be accepted by either Mr. Manchin or Ms. Sinema. 

Now with Democrats planning to add paid family leave, SALT and the prescription drug pricing, the overall cost has likely soared well above $1.75 trillion. 

“Here’s what we know, President Biden’s [bill] is thousands of pages long, costs trillions, and is designed to expand the government’s role in American society,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, Tennessee Republican. “What we don’t know are the economic, tax, and fiscal impacts of this massive legislation.”

As such, Republicans and even some moderate Democrats are demanding the Congressional Budget Office conduct a speedy and transparent audit of the bill. 

Far-left Democrats disagree. They argue that waiting for a proper CBO score, which could take weeks, will kill momentum for a deal. 

“Different pieces of the legislation have already been scored,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington state Democrat. “And so if you put all those together, you have a pretty good sense.”

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