WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin are said to be sharply divided over Democrats' huge social and environment bill, with the holdout senator pushing to erase the measure's improved child tax credit, as leaders' hopes of passing the legislation before Christmas appear to be fading away.
The rocky status of their talks, described only on condition of anonymity by a person familiar with them, was among several indications that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer faces a struggle to even begin debate on the massive measure before the holiday. Schumer, D-N.Y., has set a goal for passage of the 10-year, roughly $2 trillion measure by Christmas, in hopes of finally concluding his party's eight months of infighting over the package.
Many Democrats consider the expanded child tax credit the bill's chief weapon in their effort to reduce child poverty, and one of the provisions most responsible for largely unifying Democrats behind the legislation.
Manchin told reporters that assertions he wants to strip the child tax credit provisions were “a lot of bad rumors,” adding that he's “always been for child tax credits.” Asked if he backed one of the bill’s child tax credit improvements — monthly checks sent to millions of families — he said, “I’m not negotiating with any of you.”
In another factor clouding the bill’s prospects, Biden suggested that Senate Democrats should instead prioritize voting rights legislation, a primary party goal that Republicans have long stymied. Democrats face an uphill fight on the voting measure, but focusing on it would let them wage a battle that energizes the party's voters while lawmakers work behind the scenes on the social and environment bill.
Asked whether Congress should quickly consider the voting legislation and delay the $2 trillion bill to next year, Biden told reporters, “If we can get the congressional voting rights done, we should do it.” He added, “There's nothing domestically more important than voting rights." Biden spoke as he toured tornado damage in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
All of that produced a day of confusion in the Senate, where rank-and-file lawmakers and aides said they knew nothing about what legislation the chamber would tackle next, when and whether they would prevail.
Letting the social and environment legislation slip into next year, when congressional elections will be held, would be ominous for the bill's ultimate prospects. The party will need support from all its members in the 50-50 Senate to overcome solid Republican opposition to the bill, which embodies many of Biden’s foremost domestic goals.
With Democrats having blown past previous self-imposed deadlines on the measure, another delay would fuel Republican accusations that they are incompetently running a government they control. Democrats are bracing for November elections when the GOP has a real chance of winning control of the House and Senate.
Word of Manchin's stance prompted a backlash from colleagues, whom he's frustrated for months with constant demands to cut the bill's size and scope. The measure also has money for health care, universal prekindergarten and climate change programs, largely paid for with tax boosts on big corporations and the rich.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said that if “Mr. Manchin and the Republicans" want to tell beneficiaries of the child tax credit that they don't need help, “Let them tell the American people that.” Sanders pointedly said “the people of West Virginia understand that working families are facing one crisis after another.”
Another impediment to Democrats is a time-consuming review by the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, about whether many of the bill's provisions violate the chamber's rules and should be dropped. Her written opinions on that, including on provisions letting many migrants remain temporarily in the U.S., may not be ready until the weekend or later.
Asked whether he would supply a pivotal vote to begin Senate debate on the legislation without rulings from MacDonough, Manchin said, “Everyone wants to see it, not just me.”
Biden and Manchin have spoken by phone about the legislation at least twice this week.
Manchin recently said he wants all programs in the bill to run for its full 10-year duration, but also that the measure's price tag should total below $2 trillion. The legislation extends for just one year the extra child tax credit benefits that otherwise expire Dec. 31. They're among the many temporary initiatives Democrats proposed to keep down costs.
A one-year extension of that credit is estimated to cost more than $100 billion. Extending it over a decade would cost more than $1 trillion, which would likely squeeze out other Democratic priorities.
The bill makes the maximum credit more generous, allows coverage for 17-year-olds and lets many of the benefits be paid by monthly checks, instead of annual refunds from the IRS. The Treasury Department says the families of 61 million children have benefited.
Before the overall bill can come to the Senate floor, Schumer must resolve Manchin demands to curb the legislation's cost and remove provisions he opposes, such as required paid family leave. Disputes among other lawmakers include how to increase federal tax deductions for state and local taxes.
Schumer has scheduled the Senate to be in session the week of Jan. 3, potentially creating time for lawmakers to plunge quickly back into work on the bill. Congress is seldom in session in early January in election years.
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro and Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.