WASHINGTON – House Democrats added a new paid family leave program, immigrant work permits and a state-and-local tax break to President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion social services and environmental bill Wednesday, reviving key priorities in the rush to finish up and start voting after dismal overnight election results.
The House Rules Committee convened late Wednesday afternoon to consider the updated text of the now-sprawling 2,135-page package — a crucial step ahead of initial House votes that are possible as soon as Thursday.
The flurry of last-minute additions — on top of a plan to include lower Medicare prescription drug prices — comes as Democrats are desperate to deliver on Biden's signature domestic proposals after grim election results for the party in Virginia, a warning that their grip on power could be in peril in next year's midterms.
Most voters in Virginia said drawn-out negotiations in Washington over Biden’s governing agenda were an important factor in their vote, so blame was flowing to Capitol Hill as Democrats have spent months arguing over details of the package.
“We’ve got to produce,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told reporters at the Capitol. “We’ve got to get results for people.”
From the White House, Biden agreed: “What I do know is I do know that people want us to get things done."
Biden said, “I’m continuing to push very hard for the Democratic Party to move along and pass my infrastructure bill and my ‘Build Back Better’ bill.”
Democrats have been working fervently to shelve their differences, particularly with holdout Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and launch votes on Biden's big bill and a related $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that has stalled.
The family leave provision Manchin had resisted earlier is expected to include four weeks of paid time off for childbirth, recovery from major illness or caring for family members, less than the 12-week program once envisioned, but all fully paid for with revenue elsewhere.
Biden had reluctantly dropped a scaled-back paid leave proposal from last week’s White House framework after Manchin balked at the cost. But Democrats who lobbied that paid leave has been a party priority for decades continued to push it.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the paid leave program came together after talks early Wednesday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It's “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 total crisis,” he said in a statement.
On another remaining issue, the Democrats compromised on a plan partly to do away with the $10,000 limit on state and local tax deductions that particularly hits New York, California and other high-tax states and was enacted as part of the Trump-era 2017 tax plan.
While repeal of the so-called SALT deduction cap is a priority for several northeastern state lawmakers, progressives wanted to prevent the super-wealthy from benefiting. Under the plan, the $10,000 deduction cap would be lifted to $72,500 for 10 years, starting with the 2021 tax year.
And the just-added immigration provision would create a new program for some 7 million immigrants who are in the country without legal standing, allowing them to apply for permits to work and travel in the U.S. for five years. It would also allow the government to tap unused visas to admit people into the U.S.
Resolving the immigration issue was among the last daunting challenges to finishing up the draft of Biden's package. Biden had set aside $100 billion to fund the immigration changes, which could bolster the overall package from $1.75 trillion to $1.85 trillion if the provision is accepted by the Senate. Lawmakers plan to make their case to Senate parliamentarian in coming days, hopeful the changes will pass muster under Senate rules because they build on existing programs, those involved said.
“We have to have something for our immigrants,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif.
Both the paid family leave and the immigration law changes have drawn resistance from Manchin, whose support remains crucial in the 50-50 Senate, where Biden has no votes to spare. The overall bill faces united opposition from Republicans.
Manchin wants Democrats to take more time in negotiations, and panned the paid-leave announcement, suggesting it could be done separate from Biden’s package or “in a bipartisan way.”
Pelosi in a letter to colleagues Wednesday acknowledged opposition to the House's approach from a single senator, a reference to Manchin. But Pelosi’s strategy now seems intent on passing the most robust bill possible in her chamber and then leaving the Senate to adjust or strip out the portions they won't agree to.
"We must strive to find common ground in the legislation,” Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues.
Biden's $1.75 trillion package would provide large numbers of Americans with assistance to pay for health care, education, raising children and caring for elderly people in their homes. It also would provide some $555 billion in tax breaks encouraging cleaner energy and electrified vehicles, the nation’s largest commitment to tackling climate change.
Much of its costs would be covered with higher taxes on people earning over $10 million annually and large corporations, which would now face a 15% minimum tax in efforts to stop big business from claiming so many deductions they end up paying zero in taxes.
Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas., said the party's internal debates have been harmful not only for public opinion, but "also harmful in terms of showing that our democracy is working." He said Wednesday, “We have to show that we can govern.”
Still, the final details of Biden’s big proposal are coming into shape.
Along with Wednesday's additions of the paid family leave, immigration and local tax deduction programs, Democrats on Tuesday reached a deal to lower prescription drug costs for most older people, capping out-of-pocket Medicare Part D costs at $2,000 and reducing the price of insulin.
For the first time, Medicare will be able to negotiate prescription drug prices in its Part B and Part D programs. The new monthly cap on the price of insulin would lower the price to no more than $35 a dose and there would be a so-called inflation rebate if annual prices rise too high, Democrats said.
Some moderate Democrats in the House said they want to see a fiscal assessment of Biden's overall package from the Congressional Budget Office before taking the vote.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Alan Fram contributed to this report.