Dems' $1.7T spending bill clears House, but Senate changes loom

The House passed a sweeping $1.7 trillion spending bill Friday, a major step forward for the health care and climate package before action turns to the Senate, where an uncertain fate awaits.

The behemoth bill is the most significant restructuring of the social safety net in decades, touching nearly every aspect of American life from universal pre-K to college assistance to elder care. Democrats also hope the landmark legislation can help them beat the historical odds and maintain full control of Congress next year.

For now, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats are choosing to revel in their success — having secured forward progress on the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda after months of party infighting that threatened to scuttle the bill altogether.

"With the passage of the Build Back Better Act, we, this Democratic Congress, are taking our place in the long and honorable heritage of our democracy with legislation that will be the pillar of health and financial security in America,” Pelosi said in a floor speech before the vote. “It will be historic in forging landmark progress for our nation.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Pelosi’s longtime deputy, called it “one of the most consequential bills that any member will ever vote on.”

All but one Democrat — Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) — voted in favor of the package, with all Republicans opposed. Democratic leaders had originally wanted to vote Thursday evening but scrapped that plan after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy held the floor with a speech lasting more than eight hours that referenced everything from Teslas to Tiananmen Square.

It will be at least two weeks before the Senate considers the legislation, and even then the bill is likely to undergo high-level changes to ensure it can conform to upper-chamber rules as well as win support from all 50 Democrats.

Some of the bill’s more popular provisions will likely be stripped out in the Senate for political or parliamentary reasons. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), for instance, has opposed the bill’s provisions expanding paid family leave, and many Democrats are pessimistic that their modest immigration reform proposal will pass muster with Senate budget rules.

And Senate Republicans will attempt to force last-minute edits during a lengthy voting marathon that, unlike previous so-called “vote-a-rama” sessions on the social spending measure, could actually change its text if they can win over just a single Democrat. After that Senate consideration, the bill will then almost certainly bounce back to the House for a final vote, with key elements potentially altered in the final package.

“Passing this … will change the focus from process and topline numbers to the substance,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chair of the Budget Committee, acknowledging that at times he was uncertain whether the bill could pass the House with such narrow margins.

Yarmuth didn’t deny he’s worried about what senators will cut from the bill in the coming weeks. “No matter what we do here, we're concerned about the Senate.”

If enacted, the legislation will be a legacy-defining moment for both Biden and Pelosi after decades as Democratic leaders in Washington. Pelosi has told her caucus this is the most transformational vote they will cast in their congressional careers and described it as the “culmination” of her life’s work after nearly two decades leading House Democrats and a history-making two-stint turn as speaker.

Democrats also hope the spending package will give their party a much-needed boost as they enter a potentially perilous midterm year. Less than one year out from the election, Democrats are watching Biden’s poll numbers decline amid a series of stumbles both domestic and abroad — all while staring down newly redrawn congressional maps that are likely to heavily favor Republicans.

But many senior Democrats argue if there’s anything that can reverse their fate, it’s a sprawling policy package that will help millions of people — either through education, health care, child and elder assistance or climate investments.

And they say the party’s biggest priority now should be to shout from the rooftops about their victory.

“I hope the Senate passes this very quickly. But then the big work is to get out there and get it done, actually implement it and talk about it and let people know what's coming,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who led the House Democrats’ campaign arm last cycle, had a few suggestions: “Don’t talk about it in policy terms. Throwing out the ‘trillion’ dollar word, ‘billion’ dollar word. Just talk about what it means for people.”

The bill contains historic measures that encompass nearly every House committee.

For instance, Democrats are pushing forward the biggest change to the U.S. health care system since the passage of the Affordable Care Act more than a decade ago, aiming to make insurance cheaper or free for millions more people, provide new benefits to seniors on Medicare and cut the cost of prescription drugs.

The bill also includes a major restructuring of U.S. taxes for higher-income earners and businesses, including a new minimum tax on large corporations and a new levy on stock buybacks. The proposal also has a new surtax on millionaires, though Democrats have vowed that no one earning less than $400,000 per year will pay more in taxes.

Other tax provisions in the bill represent the biggest government boost to domestic manufacturing since the New Deal outside of the defense budget, collectively setting aside $320 billion in tax incentives. Those include new tax credits to produce solar panels, batteries, semiconductors and other energy technologies at home — all sectors where the U.S. lags China in manufacturing.

But another tax provision repealing a Trump-era limit on state and local tax deductions, known as SALT, has divided Democrats. Lawmakers from high-tax states pushed for the repeal, which will give a tax break to upper and middle-income earners in those states. But others have argued the change amounts to a tax break for millionaires and billionaires too, handing Republicans — none of whom voted for the legislation — a potent political weapon next year.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the package will increase the federal deficit by $160 billion over a decade. This cuts against the promise Biden and top Democrats have long made that the bill will be fully paid for.

The White House disputes the CBO number, saying it doesn’t fully account for money coming in from increased IRS enforcement under the bill — additional revenue that administration officials insist will cover the total cost of the legislation.

The vote on Friday caps more than eight months of messy negotiations as Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Biden himself attempted to corral their party behind a single proposal.

Biden first announced the proposal in April, just weeks after signing a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. But progress toward a final draft was painstakingly slow.

For months, Democrats battled over the total price tag, going from a $3.5 trillion budget top line to the eventual $1.75 trillion package. Recalcitrant centrists like Manchin forced leaders to jettison parts of the bill, such as free community college, an ambitious Medicare expansion, and making an expanded Child Tax Credit permanent.

House lawmakers fumed at the influence of Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), whose opposition pushed provisions like tax hikes on upper-income payers and Biden’s signature clean energy program out of the final bill.

Yet House Democrats also struggled to unite on the bill. Both moderate and progressive wings of the party rebelled against their leadership, costing time and patience. Pelosi and her team tried twice to bring the bill to the floor, but were repeatedly derailed by disputes over the process for passing it that stemmed from top Democrats’ decision to link the social spending bill to a separate infrastructure bill.

But Democrats insist that those months of feuding will be soon forgotten when the legislation is signed into law.

I don’t think most people are watching the day-by-day slog. We get all worried about it, everybody’s watching the sausage making, are we going to get this done?” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.). “Most people have turned off cable news because it’s boring to their lives. But I think we can make it interesting.”

Olivia Beavers, Alice Miranda Ollstein, Burgess Everett, Gavin Bade and Bernie Becker contributed to this report.

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