Biden sets $1.9 – $2.2 trillion social safety net bill price range

President Joe Biden told progressive House Democrats during a virtual meeting Monday that the price tag for the $3.5 trillion social safety net bill would need to come down, and he gave them a range between $1.9 and $2.2 trillion, according to sources familiar with the discussion. 

The White House believes moderate Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who think the price is too high at $3.5 trillion, might be willing to support the measure, called the Build Back Better Act, at that lower cost.

The bill would address climate change and expand the social safety net — it would help Americans with child care, provide universal preschool, two free years of community college and expand Medicare, among many other things. House Democrats passed their bill in August without a single Republican vote.

According to a source, during the meeting, the lawmakers discussed possible ways to reach that range, including shortening the duration of some of the programs in the Build Back Better Act, rather than choosing fewer programs and fully funding them. The progressives hope  that popular programs would then be renewed down the line, as they’re about to expire. 

The source said the White House raised means testing as another way to bring down the cost, but the lawmakers raised concerns about the difficulty of means-testing some of the programs. 

One member who attended the meeting, however, told CBS News the call was “less about a number and more about priorities.” The lawmaker characterized the discussion as “productive” and said Mr. Biden “reiterated his belief that it’s important that we get both bills passed, and that they are really one agenda — the Build Back Better agenda.”

Another Democratic lawmaker at the virtual gathering said Mr. Biden asked everyone to “lay out what their priorities are,” and said the president expressed some frustration with Manchin and Sinema.

When it was over, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the Progressive Caucus chair, agreed the meeting had been “productive” and thanked the president “for his leadership and for continuing to fight for his visionary Build Back Better Act that people throughout this country want, need, and deserve.”

But the fate of the social safety net bill — which will have to be passed under a budgetary process called reconciliation because it does not have the 60 votes ordinarily needed to pass most legislation in the Senate — and the smaller $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill remain in limbo. The infrastructure bill is a spending plan covering roads, highways, bridges, airports, ports and other traditional infrastructure, but also includes modern needs, like charging stations to support electric vehicles and increasing broadband access. It cleared the Senate in August with broad bipartisan support, but House progressives said they won’t support it until the Build Back Better Act is also passed in the upper chamber. 

All 50 Democratic senators must vote for the Build Back Better Act to ensure its passage, since it has no GOP support. For now, it has 48 votes — Manchin and Sinema have refused to back it. It’s not clear what or how much Sinema would like to see cut, but Manchin said last week that his topline figure for that measure is $1.5 trillion, a full $2 trillion below the current price tag.

In an interview with “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan on Sunday, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York and member of the House Progressive Caucus, claimed the moderate Democratic senators have not been negotiating.

“What we’re seeing here is the dynamic where progressives are trying to skin this cat nine different ways but moderates are not really coming to the table,” she said.