WASHINGTON — President Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress in recent days have slashed their ambitions for a major expansion of America’s social safety net to a package worth $2.3 trillion or less, which will force hard choices about how to scale back a proposal that the president hopes will be transformational.
The figure is substantially less than Mr. Biden’s earlier plan, which called for $3.5 trillion in new spending and tax cuts to spur a generational expansion of government in Americans’ lives, including efforts to fight climate change and child poverty, increase access to education and help American companies compete with China.
Democratic leaders will probably need to narrow their plans for free community college, child tax credits and universal prekindergarten so they are offered only to lower- and middle-income Americans, according to party members involved in the negotiations.
The White House is also debating whether to try to keep as many programs as possible, by cutting their duration or reach, or to jettison some initiatives entirely to keep others largely intact, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The cuts represent a blow to Mr. Biden’s agenda, but the remaining plans would still deliver significant benefits to a wide range of Americans. Mr. Biden and his aides have known for months that they would most likely need to reduce the size and scope of his plans to satisfy moderates in his party. But the president has stressed, in public and in private conversations with Democrats, that even a smaller bill could shift the landscape of the American economy and help the party hold power in midterm elections next year.
“These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday in Michigan, where he spoke at a union hall to promote not only the policies in his spending bill, but a smaller, bipartisan infrastructure bill that has passed the Senate but not the House. “They’re about opportunity versus decay.”
The president acknowledged in private meetings on Monday and Tuesday with House Democrats that he was now negotiating a plan to spend no more than $2.3 trillion, and possibly less, in a concession to two Democratic centrist holdouts, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Their votes are must-haves: Mr. Biden will need support from every Democrat in the Senate, and virtually every one in the House, to secure passage of the bill. Mr. Manchin has said he would support a $1.5 trillion package under certain conditions.
Progressives are still pushing for more. In a private meeting between Mr. Biden and progressive lawmakers on Monday, Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, pushed back at the range Mr. Biden offered and instead suggested a price tag of at least $2.5 trillion, and up to $2.9 trillion, according to a person familiar with the comments. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a closed-door meeting.
White House aides say privately that Mr. Biden is pushing Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema to spend as much as possible in the final bill. Administration officials also say the reduced cost of spending and tax cuts in the bill means Democrats will have an easier time settling on the revenue increases — including tax hikes on high earners and corporations — to cover the price tag.
Republicans say the legislation inserts too much government into people’s lives and contend that its tax increases would cripple the economy. But the bill’s proponents see a rare and perhaps fleeting opportunity to deliver on decades of promises that Democrats have made to voters. Privately, many Democrats fear they could lose their congressional majorities next year in midterm elections — making this potentially their last chance for some time to create programs they believe will prove to be effective and popular.
“If the final package fails to meet this moment, it will be a squandered opportunity of historic consequence,” said Lindsay Owens, the executive director of the progressive Groundwork Collaborative in Washington. “These aren’t just numbers on a page or props for political posturing — every dollar represents real investments in climate, housing, caregiving and other critical programs our communities need to survive and thrive.”
On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders have set their sights on Oct. 31 as the next self-imposed deadline to try to pass both the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the sprawling domestic policy package.
Lawmakers and progressive interest groups have begun lobbying Democratic leaders and the White House to keep their preferred spending programs in the bill, all or in part. Supporters of what Mr. Biden initially proposed as a $400 billion investment in home health care for disabled and older Americans, including the powerful Service Employees International Union, are pushing to preserve that spending at a level that both expands access to in-home care and also raises the wages of care workers. Those workers disproportionately include women of color, making the spending a key plank of Mr. Biden’s promise to invest in racial equity.
On Tuesday, the centrist Progressive Policy Institute issued a report outlining a potential $2 trillion plan built around efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a means-tested prekindergarten program, an expansion of the Affordable Care Act and a more modest extension of the tax credit for parents than Mr. Biden has championed.
Mr. Biden has not said what he would cut. But lobbyists and interest groups have parsed recent comments by the president and his team for clues.
For example: A White House fact sheet issued before the Michigan speech included a list of statistics on the number of state residents who would be helped by Mr. Biden’s plans to subsidize child care, provide universal prekindergarten, build affordable housing, invest in child nutrition and more. But it notably did not mention a paid leave program for workers that was a cornerstone of Mr. Biden’s initial economic plans, and Mr. Biden did not mention paid leave in his speech.
“Nobody is going to get everything they want,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said on Monday. “But no matter what, our final proposal will deliver the core promise we made to the American people.”
In a letter to her Democratic colleagues in the House this week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California outlined three categories a final package should address to support children and jobs: health care, including both expanding Medicaid and improving Medicare benefits, family care and the climate. She wrote that it remained important to “to highlight and communicate to the country the transformative nature of the initiatives in the legislation.”
Some liberals have called for including as many programs as possible, and then continuing to build on them in future legislation. But Ms. Pelosi, speaking privately to members of the House Democratic leadership on Tuesday, suggested that many in the caucus felt it would be better to focus on fewer programs that they could carry out well, according to two people familiar with the comments.
On Tuesday, Mr. Biden met virtually for about an hour with a handful of swing-district Democrats, who face some of the toughest midterm re-election fights, to hear their priorities and reiterate his commitment to seeing both pieces of legislation become law.
Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, said those present “wanted to arm him with the knowledge that the members of the House who were in the toughest races are with him and support doing this.”
The group of lawmakers there — including Representatives Cindy Axne of Iowa, Lizzie Fletcher of Texas and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia — largely focused on including the expanded tax cut that provides monthly payments to families, addressing climate change and lowering the cost of prescription drugs, as well as personal priorities, according to people familiar with the discussion.
Representative Susan Wild, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Biden took scrupulous notes during the virtual call as the lawmakers detailed their priorities.
“Not a single one of us gave him a top line — we really focused much more on the programs,” Ms. Wild said. “Even if it means fewer programs, we want to see them done well, so I don’t think any of us felt like it was useful to just talk about an abstract number.”