While Joe Manchin says a deal is close on his party’s $1 trillion-plus social spending bill, several Senate colleagues are taking the opportunity to nudge him for a last-minute agreement on their priorities.
The West Virginian sounded optimistic about an agreement on a social spending framework as soon as this week, but acknowledged he still has problems with several provisions in the package. That list includes the party’s efforts to expand health care benefits and create a federal paid leave program — two issues on which fellow Democrats are starting to lobby him directly.
Acknowledging the headwinds that paid leave faces with Manchin, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said on Monday evening she is “starting a new conversation” with him on what he might accept.
“I can tell you Sen. Manchin is interested in an employer and employee based [plan], and I am negotiating with him right now to see if we can include paid leave in a final package,” she said.
Gillibrand isn’t alone. Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) are also working to assuage Manchin’s concerns about the party’s push to close the Medicaid coverage gap. Despite the centrist’s public concerns earlier in the day, Warnock said Monday evening that as far as he knew, the Medicaid expansion would still be included in the social spending package.
The back-and-forth with Manchin comes as the White House and Democratic leaders push for an agreement on an outline for the bill before President Joe Biden leaves for an overseas trip that includes a global summit on climate change. Though most in the party are bullish about a deal that can unite progressive and moderate factions, Manchin and the White House are still haggling over a top line number, as well as exactly which programs to include and for how long.
Asked if he could agree to a $1.75 trillion social spending bill, Manchin reiterated that he still wants the price tag to remain at $1.5 trillion. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are still pushing for roughly $2 trillion after coming down from $3.5 trillion, a climbdown that’s bound to require big slashes to specific policy proposals.
“I’m concerned about an awful lot of things,” Manchin said.
House leaders are currently eyeing a Wednesday vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which they’re aiming to pass before the Oct. 31 expiration of federal surface transportation funding. But in order to get that vote slotted, they need a framework with support from Manchin and the second centrist holdout, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), in the next 48 hours.
A spokesperson for Sinema said the senator “continued discussions throughout the weekend, and progress continues to be made.” Sinema has been working with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on proposals that would bring in revenues from the wealthy and corporations without raising rates on corporations or high-income earners.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Monday that Democrats plan to introduce the so-called billionaires tax, a proposal Manchin also backs, “in the next two days.”
“I support basically everyone paying their fair share of taxes,” Manchin said Monday. “We all have a different approach to that. But as far as on the taxation, I think that corporations should be paying at least a minimum if you’re doing business in the United States.”
Senate Democrats are also working to finalize key policy priorities in the social spending package and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the party is down to “three to four outstanding issues.”
Manchin, who chairs the Energy Committee, met Monday afternoon with Schumer, Wyden, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) on the climate provisions. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Democrats were pursuing a third option on immigration reform that would provide temporary status to certain undocumented workers.
Without an agreed-upon outline for the social spending plan, House progressives are set to line up against the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which wouldn’t bode well for the party ahead of the Virginia gubernatorial election next week.
“We want to have an agreement so we can go forward,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday as she left a meeting with House Democratic leadership.
Over the weekend, paid family leave and Medicare benefits for vision, dental and hearing were potentially on the chopping block amid opposition from Manchin and resistance from Sinema in some respects. Manchin did not detail specific concerns with the party’s proposed paid leave program, but he said Monday that he’s still working on reaching an understanding with his colleagues on the bill’s Medicaid provisions.
Manchin told reporters on Monday that he’s worried about creating inequity between states that have already expanded Medicaid — which include his home state of West Virginia — and those that have not. Expansion states pay 10 percent of the cost of the expansion, and 12 states have not yet expanded Medicaid coverage.
“The problem that I have with that one right now, we’re paying 90/10. So 10 percent is being paid by all the states. For states that held out and be rewarded 100 percent is not fair,” Manchin said.
The Medicaid assistance in the bill is a top priority for House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Warnock, who hail from states where hundreds of thousands of poor people would be able to enroll in the program. That amounts to a tangible win they and other red-state Democrats could campaign on next year.
“He’s raised some concerns and I think I’ve answered them,” Warnock said Monday. “Some are saying that it is unfair to people in the expansion states. I think what’s unfair is for the people of Georgia to be paying for health care that they can’t access.”
In addition to explaining his position on Medicaid, Manchin detailed his qualms with the Medicare expansion that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has championed. Sanders declined to comment.
Manchin said that his “big concern right now” is the current projection that Medicare would hit a point of fiscal insolvency in 2026, complicating the path to an expansion.
“Medicare and Social Security is a lifeline to people back in West Virginia, most people around the country,” he told reporters. “You’ve got to stabilize that first before you look at basically expansion so if you’re not being fiscally responsible that’s really concerning.”
Another enormous issue for many Democrats, both progressives and centrists, is allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices in some fashion. One idea being discussed is allowing Medicare to negotiate prices on a limited number of drugs, similar to the Veterans Affairs’ system, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The issue hasn’t been settled yet, and some Democrats are worried it could get further watered down.
As the negotiations drag on, some progressive lawmakers are growing anxious about what will be included in the package.
“I’m very concerned,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), citing policy priorities like funding for housing, pre-school and community college. “We’re way past the moment when everything needs to be locked down.”
Alice Ollstein, Sarah Ferris and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.