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Biden: We'll Have to Break Up Build Back Better Plan

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a formal news conference at the White House
KEVIN LAMARQUE
By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Biden Says His Spending Plan Will Probably Have to Be Broken Up

On day 365 of his administration, President Joe Biden stepped before the White House press corps on Wednesday afternoon and sought to use his first solo news conference in months to reset the political narrative of his presidency after a string of high-profile setbacks for his agenda.

“It’s been a year of challenges but it’s also been a year of enormous progress,” Biden said, touting the increase in Covid vaccinations, jobs and wages, among other accomplishments.

With dismal approval ratings driven by inflation at a four-decade high and a record-breaking surge of Covid cases, Biden sought to assure the public that he understood the frustration rippling across the nation and is working to address the crises facing the economy, from fixing strained supply chains to addressing the pandemic to reining in inflation.

Biden argued that the bipartisan infrastructure act he signed into law will boost the economy and that the Build Back Better plan now stalled in Congress would ease long-term inflation and cut costs American families face for prescription drugs and child care. “Bottom line, if price increases are what you’re worried about, the best answer is my Build Back Better plan,” Biden said.

Asked if he had overpromised Americans on what he could achieve, Biden insisted he had made enormous progress and disputed the notion that his agenda must be scaled back. He said he needs to make a stronger case to the public in defense of what he’s done and what he wants to do. He also lashed out at Republicans, acknowledging he has been unable to win their support. “I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done,” he said. “What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing they’re for.”

Breaking up Build Back Better: Biden may have sought to blame Republicans, but major portions of his agenda, from the Build Back Better bill to voting rights, have been stalled by members of his own party, namely Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).

The president indicated Wednesday he still thinks he can make progress on the social spending and climate package — but acknowledged that the plan would likely need to be broken into parts.

“I’m confident we can get pieces, big chunks of the Build Back Better law signed into law,” Biden said, later adding, “It’s clear to me that we’re going to have to probably break it up.”

Biden said he has been “talking to a number of my colleagues on the Hill” and, based on those conversations, he believes that Democrats would be able to get the support they need for the energy and climate provisions in the package. And he noted that Manchin strongly supports the early education programs in the package.

“I think we can break the package up, get as much as can now and come back and fight for the rest later,” Biden said.

The White House reportedly is planning to re-engage with Manchin on the legislation after the West Virginia centrist announced last month that he could not support the House version of the bill. But Biden officials want negotiations to be less public than they were last year. “One lesson we learned in the first year is, I think, the less we talk about our negotiations with specific senators and congressmen, the better we are so I’m going to say our talks with Sen. Manchin will proceed directly and privately,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told The Wall Street Journal.

The bottom line: Democrats had planned to use the budget reconciliation process to pass the Build Back Better bill by a simple majority vote in the Senate. If they break up the package and don’t use reconciliation, they would face additional obstacles to actually getting legislation passed, even as the approach forces lawmakers to publicly support or oppose elements of the package in a midterm election year.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told the Journal that Democrats should try to keep the bigger plan together to avoid those procedural hurdles. And she put the onus on Biden to get the Democratic holdouts to back a plan resembling the $1.75 trillion framework the White House released in October. “I think it’s really up to the president to get Sen. Manchin as close to the framework as possible,” she said. “The president is the only one who can really deliver that framework, he negotiated it. His credibility is on the line. We all compromised a lot to get to that framework.”

Quote of the Day

“I don’t care if you call it ‘The Joe Manchin Bill.’ I just want it passed.”

– An unnamed Democratic lawmaker, as quoted by The Hill in a story detailing the desperation some in the party feel as they try to salvage portions of their economic and environmental agenda in the face of intraparty divisions in an election year.

Blue State Dems Sticking to Their Demands on SALT Deduction

Adding to the pile of problems weighing on President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, a key Democratic lawmaker reminded the White House Wednesday that a group of blue state lawmakers are sticking with their demand that the legislative package include a big increase in the value of the state and local tax deduction.

“We will not go for this agenda, as important as it is, unless we get the state and local tax deduction,” Rep. Tom Suozzi, who represents a suburban district in Long Island, told a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “For me, it’s existential. In the state of New York, it’s existential.”

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski told Bloomberg News that he agreed. “It will certainly be an issue in my race,” he said. “I worked my heart out to restore this deduction.”

The version of the Build Back Better bill passed by the House includes an increase in the SALT deduction to $80,000 per year, up from the current $10,000. The increase has drawn opposition from both left and right, with critics pointing out that the higher deduction cap would provide a substantial windfall to some high-income households.

Suozzi said that despite the criticism, he thought he could make a deal with Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), two key Democratic senators who have held the bill up in the Senate, though it could be tricky given the narrow margin for error. “Manchin’s a really old-school politician and I think that a deal can be made with him,” Suozzi said. “Sinema is not as easy. She has certain positions and she is intractable on those positions.”

US to Provide 400 Million N95 Face Masks

The Biden administration will start distributing 400 million non-surgical N95 masks next week as part of its effort to combat the spread of Covid-19, a White House official said Wednesday.

The unnamed official told CNN that the masks would come from the Strategic National Stockpile and made available for free through pharmacies and community health centers, with a limit of three per person. The federal stockpile currently holds about 750 million non-surgical N95 masks, which filter 95% of particles in the air and provide better protection against the coronavirus than cloth masks.

The White House has called on Americans to continue to use the masks, despite resistance among some parts of the population. “I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it,” President Joe Biden said last week. “But there is a -- they're a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of the highly transmittable Omicron variant. So, please, please wear the mask.”

The mask distribution is one of several new Covid-related initiatives that have taken effect in January. The federal website that provides a limited number of free Covid at-home tests went live Wednesday, and as of January 15, private health insurers are required to cover the cost of at-home testing.

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