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Massive spending package will reshape American life, if it survives Congress

Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 1:05 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - President Joe Biden’s big policy promises may be collapsing under their own political weight in Congress.

Several moderate Democrats contend leadership’s $3.5-trillion dollar spending plan, tackling issues ranging from child care to climate change, is simply too expensive. Meanwhile, progressives are threatening to hold a bipartisan, $1-trillion infrastructure package hostage until the budget gets the green light.

Both measures are likely doomed if Democratic leaders cannot get almost every one of their members on-board.

Key senators from Vermont and West Virginia continue to issue hardline ultimatums, representatives from both states say the country can’t afford to come away with nothing.

Struggling to save his agenda from warring factions within his own party, President Joe Biden called progressive and moderate Democrats to the White House Wednesday evening.

But neither side appears to be blinking, locked in a high-stakes game of political chicken over whether and how to spend trillions on infrastructure and signature social policies.

“We can’t afford to have it collapse,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said of the infrastructure bill and budget proposal, “then everybody loses, so we actually have to find a way to get to yes here.”

Welch helped write a $500-billion slice of Democrats’ $3.5-trillion budget bill as a member of the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee.

He briefly broke away from our interview to vote against a Republican counter-proposal, returning to emphasize the need for massive investment in broadband, climate change, health care, child-care and higher education.

“Those are some elements that are really important for Vermont and everyday families,” he noted, adding that broadband and climate investments come with a promise of new jobs.

Progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders and his moderate colleague Joe Manchin are trillions of dollars apart in their respective spending visions. At least publicly, both continue to stand-by their positions and show no signs of yielding. Neither made time to speak with the Gray D.C. Bureau over the last several weeks.

Welch insisted middle ground can be found. “The price tag, we’re going to continue to negotiate on,” he said, “but I think we can get to a place where it’s affordable and paid for.”

Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) sounded a bemused note at the Democratic in-fighting. “They’re going to have to work this fight out among themselves, when they’re having a shooting contest, don’t get in the middle of it,” he said with a smile.

McKinley and his fellow Republicans on Energy and Commerce had next to no input drafting portions of the budget bill. “They’re the majority power, I understand that, I respect that,” he said acknowledging the politics in play.

While McKinley characterized the current budget draft as a liberal wishlist, he argued Democrats could get buy-in from Republicans like him if they dramatically scaled back the scope and cost of their proposals.

As an example, McKinley said he would work with Democrats to boost renewables and clean up West Virginia’s signature dirty energy sources. He said the proposal Democrats drafted would completely scrub out fossil fuels, crippling the grid and economy.

McKinley predicts the Democratic spending plan will fall apart. But, he is betting on the bipartisan infrastructure bill he supports. “It’s going to be calling [progressives’] bluff so to speak,” he said.

McKinley mocked those -- in either party -- who would vote against a bill simply to prevent the other side from earning a bipartisan win.

Both infrastructure and budget negotiations began months ago. At this point, those looking for a deal have only days to determine what’s truly on the table.

Further complicating negotiations, the federal government is rapidly approaching another shutdown and may default on its debts by mid-October.

Leaders in both parties say the country can’t afford a self-inflicted financial crisis – and agree on the solution – but so far, Senate Republicans have said they won’t vote for it.

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