WASHINGTON: The White House raced on Wednesday (Oct 27) to lock down a deal on Joe Biden’s sweeping economic agenda with the president desperate to take some big domestic 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 US$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 legislation, known as the Build Back Better bill.
But the White House and congressional Democrats are facing up to an uncomfortable truth: weeks of negotiations between the party’s left and centre have yet to produce even consensus 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 nations and then Glasgow for a global climate gathering, met Tuesday evening with moderate senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin.
‘WITHIN ARM’S LENGTH’
Both are holdouts on Build Back Better who have spent weeks chiselling the original US$3.5 trillion top line to somewhere nearer half that.
There was no significant breakthrough, but a White House official said the trio “made progress on top of what has been accomplished in recent days” and the senators were in follow-up meetings Wednesday with Biden aides.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said an agreement was “within arm’s length,” specifying that he was hopeful of a framework agreement emerging by the end of the day.
“The work we do right now will echo far into the 21st Century,” the New York Democrat told colleagues on the floor of the Senate.
“This is the best opportunity we’ve had in a long time to make sure that the decades to come will offer the same – or even greater – opportunities that Americans enjoyed in the past.”
But 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 the elderly and low-income Americans – a deal breaker for many progressives.
“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.
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 US$1 billion in assets or US$100 million in annual income for three consecutive years.
Under the proposal, according to US media, billionaires would begin paying capital gains taxes of 23.8 per cent 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 US$300 billion, around a fifth of the expected compromise cost of Build Back Better.
The collective fortune of America’s billionaires soared by 70 per cent during the pandemic, according to the liberal-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, from almost US$3 trillion in March 2020 to over US$5 trillion on Oct 15 this year.
But Democrats in both chambers, including Sinema and Richie Neal, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, are said to have misgivings, while Manchin appeared to rule out the move as divisive.
“I don’t like it. I don’t like the connotation that we’re targeting different people,” he said.
There were signs of light however, with tentative agreement among the Democrats, who control Congress and the White House, on a minimum 15 per cent corporate tax on the profits of companies clearing more than US$1 billion a year.
Nearly 200 companies would be subject to the tax, another key revenue raiser that could generate as much as US$400 billion, its backers say. Crucially, Manchin and Sinema are both on board.