Democrats haggle over spending as Biden presses sweeping agenda

Washington (AFP) – The White House raced Wednesday to lock down a deal on Joe Biden's sweeping domestic agenda with the president desperate to take some big wins with him on a trip to meet global leaders in Europe.


Biden's economic plan remained in limbo 24 hours ahead of his departure for Italy as administration officials launched a full-court press to get congressional Democrats to vote on a long-delayed $1.2 trillion package to transform America's crumbling infrastructure.

Negotiators are hoping to pass the massive roads and bridges upgrade as early as Wednesday, as a boon to Democrats in upcoming governors' elections in Virginia and New Jersey and as a success for Biden to tout on the world stage.

But leftist lawmakers have made clear they will block the Senate-approved cross-party bill until a text is agreed on the final version of Biden's other major priority -- a behemoth social spending package aiming to build a fairer economy.

There has been some progress on that package, known as the Build Back Better bill, but weeks of negotiations between the Democratic left and center have yet to produce consensus even on the price tag, let alone the provisions it should contain, or how to pay for it.

Biden, who heads to Rome for a summit of G-20 wealthy nations and then Glasgow for a global climate gathering, met Tuesday evening with moderate senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, both holdouts on Build Back Better who have spent weeks chiseling the original $3.5 trillion top line to somewhere nearer half that.

'Sleepless nights'

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer believes an agreement is "within reach," he told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

"It's worth the sleepless nights, it's worth the long weekends," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer says a deal on Build Back Better is "within reach"
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer says a deal on Build Back Better is "within reach" Olivier DOULIERY AFP/File

"This is our job and this is a moment. It may be a moment that doesn't come back again."

Despite the optimism, Democrats have yet to reach consensus on a slew of issues including taxes, paid family leave, prescription drug pricing and expanding health care coverage for two million low-income Americans.

Leftist former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders says a separate plan to expand Medicare -- a federal health insurance program mainly for seniors -- to cover dental, vision and hearing programs is a deal-breaker.

But Manchin, who wondered publicly on Tuesday whether he actually belongs in the Democratic Party, has insisted he won't expand a program that's already going bankrupt.

"There's just huge pieces of this that are not nailed down. So each time I hear 'Well, it's almost done,' I don't know what the hell people are talking about," Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley told NBC.

Billionaires' tax

In a last-second scramble to pay for Biden's plans, Senate Democrats are mulling a billionaires' tax that would target roughly 700 tycoons with over $1 billion in assets or $100 million in annual income for three consecutive years.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden said his plan "would ensure billionaires pay tax every year, just like working Americans."

Under the proposal, according to US media, billionaires would begin paying capital gains taxes of 23.8 percent on the appreciation in value of tradeable assets such as stocks and bonds, regardless of whether they are sold.

The tax would bring in an estimated around $300 billion, around a fifth of the expected compromise cost of Build Back Better. But Democrats in both chambers, including Manchin, Sinema, and Richie Neal, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, are said to have misgivings.

There were signs of light however, with tentative agreement among the Democrats, who control Congress and the White House, on a minimum 15 percent corporate tax on the profits of companies clearing more than $1 billion a year.

Nearly 200 billion-dollar companies would be subject to the tax, another key revenue raiser that could generate as much as $400 billion, its backers say.

"This proposal represents a commonsense step toward ensuring that highly profitable corporations -- which sometimes can avoid the current corporate tax rate — pay a reasonable minimum tax on their profits," Sinema said in a statement.