Biden Says Democrats’ Plan Will Have to Shrink

Biden Says Democrats’ Plan Will Have to Shrink

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Plus, Americans’ top priority from the Democratic plan
Friday, October 1, 2021

Biden Tells Democrats There’s Plenty of Time to Pass His (Shrinking) Agenda

President Joe Biden visited the Capitol Friday afternoon in an effort to rally feuding Democrats behind his economic agenda and press lawmakers in his party to compromise as they seek to pass both a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a larger “budget reconciliation” package of social and climate programs financed by tax increases on the wealthy and corporations.

The fate of both pieces of legislation has been clouded by differences within the party — and become even more uncertain after House Democrats late Thursday night were forced to push off a planned vote on the infrastructure measure.

Biden, appearing before the House Democratic caucus for the first time, delivered messages targeted at both centrists and progressives. With no deal ready for him to close, he reportedly urged both sides to compromise and capitalize on their chance to deliver on their promises to the American public. He reportedly also warned about the need to avoid handing Republicans a political gift ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

Biden reportedly did not press members to vote for the infrastructure bill, instead telling them that the public works legislation “ain’t going to happen until we reach an agreement on the next piece of legislation” — a message sure to disappoint at least some moderates who had sought to delink the two. “Let’s try to figure out what we are for in reconciliation … and then we can move ahead,” Biden reportedly said, counseling patience.

But Biden also made clear to progressives that the proposed $3.5 trillion cost of the reconciliation bill would need to be scaled back. “Even a smaller bill can make historic investments,” he said.

Biden reportedly told Democrats that they might have to accept something between $1.9 trillion and $2.3 trillion. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reportedly offered a $2.1 trillion topline in talks with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has held fast to his view that the price tag for the package should not exceed $1.5 trillion.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, acknowledged Friday that the $3.5 trillion won’t happen. “We’re going to have to come down in our number," she told reporters after the Biden meeting. "We're going to get to work and see what we can do." Jayapal added that she would be staying in town this weekend to keep negotiating a deal.

What it all means: After Thursday’s vote postponement, two competing storylines quickly emerged. The delay, prompted by progressives who are demanding to finalize the larger package before they’ll vote for the infrastructure bill, was an embarrassment and a major setback for Biden’s agenda — a failure that showcased Democrats’ inability to get out of their own way as they seek to prove that government can deliver results for the American people. Or it was a minor blip at worst and perhaps the necessary strategic play to spur warring centrists and progressives to finally break their stalemate and pass bills.

So which was it?

How about both. In truth, we don’t know yet and may not know for a little while as Democrats continue their negotiations.

Clearly, the delay was embarrassing and the drama surrounding the promised vote isn’t what party leaders would have chosen as the ideal path to enacting their plans. The ongoing uncertainty about an infrastructure vote threatens to wipe out a bipartisan victory Biden very much wants at a time when his sagging poll numbers could sorely use a boost. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a vote would happen on Friday, but she said the same thing on Thursday and Democrats don’t yet appear close to an agreement on the social and climate package.

At the same time, Biden and the White House are pressing for progress on both bills and have not squeezed progressives to support the infrastructure bill, indicating that they may welcome the leverage liberals are providing. And Democrats’ deadlines this week for an infrastructure vote were self-imposed and mostly arbitrary. “It doesn't matter whether it's in six minutes, six days or six weeks,” Biden told reporters as he left Friday’s Democratic caucus meeting. “We're gonna get it done.”

The bottom line: A Friday vote on the infrastructure bill seems impossible, but the clashes in recent days may have done more than any talks over the past two months to clarify what Democrats need to do to reach an agreement on both measures. But reaching a compromise won’t be easy and without a deadline to force dealmaking the drama could still drag out for weeks.

Drug Price Negotiation Is Americans’ Top Priority From Democratic Plan: Poll

What do Americans want most from the array of new policies laid out in Democrats’ sprawling infrastructure bills? According to a new Politico-Harvard poll, it’s help with health care costs.

When asked about their top priorities for the legislative effort, the policy most frequently cited by respondents from a list of 20 items was the proposal to allow the federal government to negotiate lower prices with pharmaceutical companies. Thirty-nine percent of poll respondents chose that issue as “extremely important” to them, including 45% of Democrats and 38% of Republicans.

Other popular health care provisions cited by respondents include preparing for a future pandemic, providing long-term care for senior citizens and expanding Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing benefits.

The poll of 1,006 adults, carried out September 14-19, suggests that as far as the Democratic agenda is concerned, Americans are focused on the issues that affect their own lives, with drug prices having a more obvious and immediate impact than bridge construction or highway repairs.

Not that people are paying terribly close attention. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they were following the debate “not too/not at all closely,” while just 16% said they were following it “very closely.” Another 32% said they were following the debate “fairly closely,” bringing the total of all attention-payers to 48%.

“Half of the public is not following this great debate at all,” Robert Blendon of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told Politico. “And that’s important because when I looked at the priorities, I see people picking things that relate to their own lives.”

Transportation Department Furloughs Workers as Congress Fails to Extend Funds

Congress narrowly avoided a government shutdown this week, sending a short-term funding bill to President Joe Biden Thursday with just hours to spare. But in their ongoing battle over roughly $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, lawmakers failed to extend spending from the highway trust fund. As a result, the Department of Transportation froze some transit programs and furloughed about 3,700 employees Friday.

Lawmakers are reportedly preparing a bill to restore the funding for 30 days. It could take several days to move the bill through Congress, though, leaving the affected programs and employees in the lurch.

Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, expressed his concerns about lawmakers’ failure to maintain funding. “Yesterday’s inaction on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act isn’t just disappointing — it lapses our highway, transit, and highway safety programs and halts work on vital transportation infrastructure around the country, which is detrimental to our economy and the quality of life of our communities,” he said in a statement. “We are dealing with very real repercussions.”

The $50,000 Covid Test

The simple and still often necessary act of getting tested for Covid-19 can generate eye-popping bills, thanks to the Wild West that is the American health care system.

Kaiser Health News’ Aneri Pattani tells the story of a Texas man who was exposed to an infected co-worker and visited an emergency room to get tested. The bill for the two Covid tests that were administered: $56,384.

The great majority of the bill – $54,000 – was for a PCR test, with a rapid antigen test and an ER fee accounting for the rest.

Fortunately, the patient had insurance and didn’t have to pay the bill. His insurance company negotiated a rate of $16,915.20, which was paid in full — despite being remarkably high for the services provided. Typical rates for PCR tests are closer to $100.

Such bills are perfectly legal, Pattani says, since with “covid tests — like much else in American health care — there is no cap to what providers can charge.”

Niall Brennan, CEO of the Health Care Cost Institute, told Pattani that part of the problem is the fact that medical service providers can charge sky-high fees to patients who seek care outside their insurance networks, as was the case here. “People are going to charge what they think they can get away with,” Brennan said. “Even a perfectly well-intentioned provision like this can be hijacked by certain unscrupulous providers for nefarious purposes.”

Although the patient in Texas didn’t have to pay the bill, he was disturbed by the experience and asked his insurance company to look into it. After several months, the insurance company said the emergency room claimed that the bill was issued in error and granted a refund.

The bottom line: The fact that the bill was so grossly out of line points to a bigger problem in the American health care system. According to one study cited by Pattani, between 3% and 10% of all health care spending in the U.S. is lost to overpayments for services.

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