House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared Wednesday that Democrats are in "pretty good shape" on President Joe Biden's sweeping domestic plan, but hopes for a breakthrough quickly faded when a pivotal Democratic senator panned a new billionaires' tax to help pay for the $1.75 trillion package.
President Biden and Democrats are racing to wrap up talks before the president departs this week for overseas global summits. One potential new casualty — a paid family leave benefit — was now being reduced to a more narrow program, perhaps for parents to care for new children. Besides pressing for important party priorities, President Biden's hoping to show foreign leaders the U.S. is getting things done under his still-new administration.
The president's signature package of social service and climate change proposals in the balance, President Biden could yet visit Capitol Hill before traveling abroad Thursday. House Democrats are set to meet Thursday morning. The administration is assessing the situation "hour by hour," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
"We are on track now to move forward once we get an agreement," Psaki said.
But President Biden's big proposal ran into stubborn new setbacks, chief among them how to pay for it all.
A just-proposed tax on billionaires could be scrapped after Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia objected, according to a senior party aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the private talks.
The billionaires' tax proposal had been designed to win over another Democratic holdout, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, but Manchin panned it as unfairly targeting the wealthy, leaving Democrats at odds.
"People in the stratosphere, rather than trying to penalize, we ought to be pleased that this country is able to produce the wealth," Manchin told reporters.
Manchin said he prefers a minimum 15% flat "patriotic tax" to ensure the wealthiest Americans don't skip out on paying any taxes.
Nevertheless, he said: "We need to move forward."
White House officials met at the Capitol with Manchin and Sinema, two senators who now hold enormous power, essentially deciding whether or not Preisdent Biden will be able to deliver on the Democrats' major campaign promises.
In the 50-50 Senate, President Biden needs all Democrats' support with no votes to spare.
"Making progress," Sinema said as she dashed into an elevator.
The quickening pace of negotiations came as President Biden pressed to have a deal in hand ahead of the global summits. There's also a Sunday deadline to approve a smaller, bipartisan roads-and-bridges infrastructure bill or risk allowing funds for routine transportation programs to expire. But that $1 trillion bill has been held up by progressive lawmakers who are refusing to give their support without the bigger Biden deal.
Applying pressure, Pelosi announced a Thursday committee hearing to spur the President Biden package along toward a full House. But without Senate agreement, the House panel's meeting is merely an effort to kick-start the process.
Manchin was also objecting to a new paid family leave program that was already being chiseled back from 12 to four weeks. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., had devised several new options for his review.
Gillibrand told reporters late in the evening: "It's not out, and it's not over until it's over."
Democrats had hoped the unveiling of the billionaires' tax Wednesday could help resolve the revenue side of the equation after Sinema rejected the party's earlier idea of reversing Trump-era tax breaks on corporations and the wealthy, those earning more than $400,000.
Sinema declined to say if she supported it: "I don't want to comment."
The new billionaires' proposal would tax the gains of those with more than $1 billion in assets or incomes of more than $100 million over three consecutive years.
It would hit the wealthiest of Americans — fewer than 800 people — starting in the 2022 tax year, requiring them to pay taxes on the gains of stocks and other tradeable assets, rather than waiting until holdings are sold.
A similar billionaires' tax would be applied to nontradeable assets, including real estate, but it would be deferred with the tax not assessed until the asset was sold, though interest would have to be paid.
Overall, the billionaires' tax rate would align with the capital gains rate, now 23.8%. Democrats have said it could raise $200 billion in revenue that could help fund President Biden's package over 10 years.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the billionaires tax remains on the table.
"I've not heard a single United States senator — not one —get up and say, 'Gee, I think it's just fun that billionaires pay little or nothing for years on end,'" Wyden said Wednesday.
Taken together, the new billionaires' proposal, coupled with a new 15% corporate minimum tax, are designed to fulfill President Biden's desire for the wealthy and big business to pay their "fair share." They also fit his promise that no new taxes hit those earning less than $400,000 a year, or $450,000 for couples. President Biden wants his package fully paid for without piling on debt.
"I've been talking about this for years," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who campaigned for the presidency on a wealth tax and backs Wyden's approach. "I've even made billionaires cry over this."
Resolving the revenue side has been crucial, as lawmakers figure out how much money will be available to spend on the new health, child care and climate change programs in President Biden's big plan.
Republicans have derided the billionaires' tax as "harebrained," and some have suggested it would face a legal challenge.
Among Democrats, Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he told Wyden the billionaires' tax may be difficult to implement. He expects Democrats to stick with the approach his panel took in simply raising rates on corporations and the wealthy, undoing the 2017 tax cuts.
"There's a lot of — there's a lot of angst in there over the billionaires' tax," Neal said.
Under the House bill approved by Neal's panel, the top individual income tax rate would rise from 37% to 39.6%, on those earning more than $400,000 a year, or $450,000 for couples. The corporate rate would increase from 21% to 26.5%.
The House bill also proposes a 3% surtax on the wealthiest Americans with adjusted income beyond $5 million a year, and Neal suggested that could be raised to $10 million to win over the holdouts.
Together, Manchin and Sinema's objections have packed a one-two punch, throwing President Biden's overall plan into flux, halving what had been a $3.5 trillion package and infuriating colleagues along the way.
Their opposition is forcing difficult reductions, if not the outright elimination, of policy priorities — from child care assistance to dental, vision and hearing aid benefits for seniors.
The once hefty climate change strategies are less severe, focusing away from punitive measures on polluters that raised objections from coal-state Manchin, in a shift toward instead rewarding clean energy incentives.
Tempers are running short as Democratic colleagues tire of the repeated objections form Manchin and Sinema blocking a deal.
Said Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent: "You got 48 out of 50 people supporting an agenda that works for the American people."
Additional Reporting by The Associated Press.