Democrats' Dilemma: What to Trim From Massive Social Safety Net Expansion Plan

Paid family leave or a dedicated corps to address the climate crisis? Universal pre-kindergarten or expanded health care benefits for Medicare patients? Free community college or continuing the child tax credit?

Democrats in Washington are finding themselves at a crucial negotiating point as they try to figure out how to whittle down a partisan, massive expansion of the social safety net.

Biden has dubbed the proposal—a crucial piece of his agenda that includes many of his campaign promises—as the Build Back Better agenda. It initially came with an estimated $3.5 trillion price tag, covering climate crisis initiatives, family programs and health care programs, among many other initiatives.

But as the legislation has faced a months-long standoff in Congress, Biden has acknowledged the amount will have to come down before it can pass.

"I'm convinced we're going to get it done—we're not going to get $3.5 trillion; we'll get less than that, but we're going to get it," Biden said during an event promoting the proposal in Connecticut on Friday. "And we're going to come back and get the rest."

With debate focusing on dollars, critics have complained that not much is known about what is in the proposal, as it hasn't been finalized amid behind-the-scenes negotiations. There's been little insight for the public into what it ultimately could entail, even as supporters and opponents frequently point to polls showing mixed results on its popularity.

Progressive Democrats have resisted efforts to decrease the $3.5 trillion cost, arguing they wanted to go even higher, while moderate Democrats say it's too costly and have been trying to negotiate a lower amount.

This week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus released a new proposal that all programs remain in the package but funded for less than the 10 years initially proposed, forcing lawmakers to later reauthorize popular programs.

"This bill offers us a chance to fundamentally transform the relationship between the American people and their government," they wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The measure has been linked to a separate $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would provide federal funding to upgrade roads, bridges, broadband internet, ports and other long-neglected needs.

Progressive Democrats in the House have said they won't vote to advance the infrastructure bill, which has already passed the Senate, until the larger economic plan made up of their priorities passes. Moderate Democrats, including U.S. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have pushed for the House to pass the infrastructure bill before finalizing a package on the larger bill.

Manchin and Sinema's offices didn't respond to Newsweek's requests this week for updates on where they stand, but reports have indicated that they continue talks with the White House.

Pelosi, a California Democrat, this week acknowledged that the $3.5 trillion figure likely will come down and leaned toward $2 trillion as a possible compromise point.

In a letter to colleagues, she wrote that she was hearing from members that they should shift to a plan "to do fewer things well"—meaning drop some of the proposals and maintaining robust versions of the rest, rather than smaller versions of everything proposed.

"I'm very disappointed that we're not going with the original $3.5 trillion, which was very transformative. But whatever we do, we'll make decisions that will continue to be transformative," she told reporters during her weekly briefing. "If there are fewer dollars to spend, there are choices to be made."

Pelosi and supporters of the $3.5 trillion initial offer have called it "transformative" for the breadth of programs and people it will touch.

"The Build Back Better is three baskets. It's climate...health, job security and moral responsibility," she said. "It's health care: the issues that relate to the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid, and it's family care."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, penned a letter to his caucus on Thursday urging them to bust through the impasse.

"I have said from the beginning that the execution of the two-track legislative strategy for the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act would be difficult," he wrote.

"To pass meaningful legislation, we must put aside our differences and find the common ground within our party. As with any bill of such historic proportions, not every member will get everything he or she wants."

$3.5 trillion needs a trim, but where?
Democrats in Washington are finding themselves at a crucial negotiating point as they try to figure out how to whittle down a partisan, massive expansion of the social safety net. Above, President Joe Biden speaks about efforts to address global transportation supply chain bottlenecks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on October 13, 2021. Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images