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Pelosi Predicts Thursday Vote on Biden’s Ambitious Social Policy Bill

Posted November 18, 2021 8:34 p.m. EST
Updated November 18, 2021 8:37 p.m. EST

— WASHINGTON — House Democrats, increasingly confident that they have the support to pass their $1.85 trillion social policy and climate change bill, drove toward a vote on the package as early as Thursday evening, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressing optimism that the measure would ultimately reach President Joe Biden’s desk.

“It is my hope that we will complete this legislation today,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader, said Thursday during debate of the legislation on the House floor, drawing scattered applause from lawmakers eager to leave Washington for a weeklong Thanksgiving recess.

Democrats can afford to lose only a few votes, given their slim margin of control, and leaders were leaving nothing to chance. In a letter to Democrats on Thursday evening, Pelosi signaled they would take up the measure within hours, a flurry of activity that came after publication of a final cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office shortly before 5 p.m.

The chamber is set to first approve technical changes to the bill to ensure that it can be considered under special rules known as reconciliation that shield it from a filibuster, allowing Democrats to push it through over unified Republican opposition in the Senate.

“It’s pretty exciting. This is historic. It is transformative,” Pelosi said Thursday morning. In a letter to the caucus, she described the legislation known as the Build Back Better Act as a "spectacular agenda for the future."

While lawmakers and staff were still poring over the committee-by-committee judgments from the budget office, Congress’ official scorekeeper, the CBO estimate did not appear to have immediately raised fiscal concerns. And House Democrats appeared eager to pass the measure — the broadest intervention in the nation’s social safety net in 50 years and by far the largest ever effort to combat climate change — before they leave for their holiday.

As staff scrambled to wrap up the technical changes during the day, lawmakers began debating the legislation. Democrats, who have stuffed the bill with long-desired priorities and policy changes, took turns highlighting the bill's array of environmental provisions, an expansion of health care and support for education and child care.

“Getting to this point certainly has not been fast or has it been easy,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chair of the Ways and Means Committee. “We have examined the issues, have had thoughtful, spirited debate in the committee, and we have refined our proposals.”

Pelosi talked up the areas of agreement that Democrats had reached in both the House and Senate: universal prekindergarten, generous assistance with child care costs, prescription drug price controls and home health care for older Americans.

House Republicans railed against the legislation as government overreach that would exacerbate inflation and rising costs. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader, suggested that fears about backlash over the bill had prompted the latest round of Democratic retirements.

“They know this reconciliation bill will be the end of their Democrat majority, and for many, their congressional careers,” McCarthy said.

If the bill clears the House, it faces a difficult road in the Senate, where Republicans will have a clear shot to offer politically difficult amendments, any one of which could unravel the delicate Democratic coalition behind it. Two Democratic centrists, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have not committed to supporting it, and a single defection would bring the measure down in the evenly divided chamber.

Some significant provisions remain in play, including a measure to grant work permits and legal protection to many immigrants in the country illegally; funding for four weeks of paid family and medical leave; and a generous increase in the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes paid, from $10,000 a year to $80,000. Liberals like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Budget Committee, and at least one centrist Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, have raised strong objections to that tax measure, which would amount to a major tax cut for wealthy homeowners who itemize their deductions. Sanders and other senators are discussing limiting who can benefit from the increased deduction based on income.

Having capped the deduction in their 2017 tax law, Republicans have also singled out the provision in their attacks on the legislation. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, scoffed, “I’m almost impressed our colleagues have found a way to be this out of touch.”

But Democrats from high-tax states like New Jersey and New York have demanded the provision as the price for their vote.

Pelosi, who pronounced herself a supporter of the tax provision, defended it Thursday, saying that it was “not about tax cuts for wealthy people,” but ensuring that state and local governments have the tax revenues they need to provide education, fire and rescue services.

Immigration may prove to be an even more dangerous flashpoint, given the politics around the issue since the rise of President Donald Trump. Democrats have had to scale back their ambitions from a pathway to citizenship to temporary protection from deportation for millions who are long-term residents of the United States, as well as a provision to recapture green cards that were unused in past years.

The provision may ultimately fall out altogether because of reconciliation rules, although the parliamentarian has yet to weigh in on the latest plan.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, conceded Thursday that a pathway to citizenship is likely lost for now, and she implored her colleagues to shut out the Republican attacks on what is left.

“We have to get that over the goal line, we have to,” she said, promising, “I will take it and run with it, and not stop until we get everything we need for these precious souls.”

Pelosi repeatedly said she had no fear that the bill would be brought down in the Senate or altered substantially.

“The Senate will act its will on it, but whatever it is, it will still be transformative and historic,” she said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, who will have to take up the mantle if and when the measure clears the House, promised Thursday to finish the task.

“Creating jobs, lowering costs, fighting inflation, keeping more money in people’s pockets — these are things Americans want and what Americans need, and it’s what Build Back Better does,” he said on the Senate floor. “We are going to keep working on this important legislation until we get it done.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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