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With clock ticking, Biden meets with progressives and moderates to secure his agenda

The original price tag for the plan that President Biden refers to as "human infrastructure" was $3.5 trillion. But moderates want that trimmed down to $1.5 trillion, a number that progressives consider too low.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
The original price tag for the plan that President Biden refers to as "human infrastructure" was $3.5 trillion. But moderates want that trimmed down to $1.5 trillion, a number that progressives consider too low.

Updated October 19, 2021 at 9:18 PM ET

Progressive Democrats emerged from a meeting at the White House Tuesday praising President Biden's efforts but acknowledging that in any spending agreement with moderates, key progressive priorities, including climate, pre-K and the child tax credit, would likely be smaller than they'd prefer.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters that the White House meeting with Biden was "really good, really productive" and that she feels "optimistic" after it.

"The president is the inspirer, he is the closer, he is the convincer, the mediator-in-chief," she said. "He really is doing a phenomenal job."

California Rep. Ro Khanna, who attended the meeting with Biden and Jayapal, said the president is confident he can get Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, both more moderate Democrats, on board with a compromise framework. Both Manchin and Sinema met with the president Tuesday morning.

Khanna added that a $150 billion program that would reward utilities that transition to renewable energy and penalize those that don't has been removed from the spending proposal following objections from Manchin, who represents coal-state West Virginia, and that they are negotiating replacements.

Biden also met with a bicameral group of centrist Democrats Tuesday in an attempt to bridge the divide between moderate and progressive factions in the party over the size and scope of his sweeping social spending package.

In a statement following the meetings, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the process "constructive."

"There was broad agreement that there is urgency in moving forward over the next several days and that the window for finalizing a package is closing," she said.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, one of the Democratic moderates who met with Biden, agreed progress was being made. "We're not where we need to be yet, but I think we're getting close," he said after returning from the White House.

The meetings come less than two weeks ahead of a self-imposed Oct 31. deadline to pass Biden's so-called Build Back Better plan, which would include changes to the social safety net and major investments in climate and education.

The original price tag for the plan that Biden refers to as "human infrastructure" was $3.5 trillion. However, Manchin has said he can only support a package at $1.5 trillion. Sinema, of Arizona, also expressed concerns over the initial plan's cost, but she has not publicly indicated what top number she would support.

To pass the legislation, Democrats are trying to use a process called budget reconciliation, which would require the support of all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus, meaning any one defection sinks the entire operation.

To that end, Democrats are trying to negotiate down the size of the original package to something closer to $2 trillion.

Jayapal told reporters after progressives' meeting that the president is laying out a final number between $1.9 trillion and $2.2 trillion.

"Look, it's not the number that we want. We have consistently tried to make it as high as possible," she said. "But at the end of the day, the idea that we can do these programs — a multitude of programs and actually get them going so that they deliver immediate transformational benefits to people is what we're focused on."

Jayapal referenced the striking of the Clean Electricity Performance Program from the negotiated package during an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, but said lawmakers are "still looking to see what replaces that."

"There will be a significant investment in climate. There's no question about that," she said. "The question is how do the resources get distributed and how much is in there, and I think we're still working on those pieces."

Khanna told reporters the framework would include the major policy priorities that House progressives pushed for but "at reduced budgets," including dental, vision, universal pre-K, paid family leave and the child tax credit.

Both progressive and moderate Democrats confirmed that two free years of community college — a major Biden priority — will likely not make it in a final package. Though other higher education provisions, including Pell grants and vocational programs, are. Another major Biden priority, the child tax credit, will likely be extended through 2023; progressives had hoped to make it permanent. Multiple Democrats also said Medicare expansion may have to be limited to vision and hearing. Dental coverage, a priority of progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, might be too expensive to include. Medicaid provisions were still being discussed for some items for shorter amounts of time.

Sen. Tester told reporters he expects there to be debate on whether they want "all the programs for a shorter period of time or narrow it down for a longer period of time."

Jayapal has previously said that Manchin's proposed number of $1.5 trillion is too small for progressives to support and has made it clear that her caucus won't move forward with a vote on the Senate-passed $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill without an agreement on the larger social policy package first.

Asked why Biden was meeting with the factions separately, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said: "These are serious policy discussions, often on nitty gritty details, and they aren't duels between factions of the party."

As for the timeline, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday morning he is still committed to voting on both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a reconciliation package by Oct. 31.

He said to get agreement on a scaled-back package that can pass both the House and Senate, Democrats should do "fewer things better." He declined to specify which policies should be included and which should be dropped, but said Democrats should focus on programs they can pay for and that can pass both chambers.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.