House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sees decision soon as some lawmakers explore means-testing to trim the size of a $3.5 trillion health care, education and climate bill
“We have some important decisions to make in the next few days,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, Calif.) said at a press conference on Tuesday.
On one side of the debate on the means-testing are Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.V.A.), who want to target government aid to low-income Americans, arguing that eligibility for programs should be limited. The most limiting need would be to make cheaper and more efficient use of taxpayer funds.
On the other side are both progressive and centrist Democrats who seek to provide programs such as subsidized child care, free preschool and two years of free community college to Americans at the top and bottom of the income ladder. Invoking the legacies of Social Security and Medicare, each decades old and widely available to Americans, these Democrats see universal programs as both better at helping Americans in need and winning lasting political support.
Mrs Pelosi has not indicated where she stands on income eligibility. She said this week that Democrats could reduce the number of programs to reduce the price of the bill, while also considering reducing the number of years funded.
“Overwhelmingly, the guidance I’m getting from members is to do less things well,” she said in a letter Monday, without elaborating on what could happen on the chopping block. When pressed on Tuesday about possible cuts, she said, “Mostly we’ll cut over the years and something like that.”
Mr. Manchin has said he supports the $1.5 trillion in spending, far less than the $3.5 trillion in spending Democrats originally mentioned. President Biden recently told House Democrats that he expects the final price tag to reach nearly $2 trillion, with hundreds of billions of dollars to spend to be cut from the party’s marquee bill.
“We are having important discussions about what a package smaller than $3.5 trillion will look like,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. “What we have to do is work with multiple members who have many ideas about what should be included in the package,” she said.
Democrats are using a process called conciliation to push the bill with only a simple majority through the Senate 50-50 instead of the typically required 60. No Republicans are expected to support the bill, calling it useless and potentially harmful to the economy, meaning Democrats can’t lose a single vote in the Senate or more than three votes in the House.
How Democrats ultimately resolve the debate is set to determine whether many Americans can access the bevy of proposed programs — and shape the party’s electoral success in 2022.
“I think when we’re investing in a large number of Americans, it creates more buy-in,” said Conor Lamb (D., Pa.), a centrist representative running for Senate, arguing that. that universal programs would resonate better with voters before the mid-term of 2022. But he acknowledged that it was still an unresolved question.
“Both sides of the debate are arguing that their approach is going to be better at election time,” he said.
Not only does reducing eligibility for the bill’s programs reduce its cost, it could also help Democrats avoid political attacks that they are spending money on Americans who don’t need it.
Rep. Jared Golden (D., Maine), who represents a competitive district, recently wrote in an op-ed in the Portland Press Herald that the bill’s program was “for responsible working and middle-class families.” should be targeted.” Mr. Manchin has repeatedly warned against building a “deserving society”.
Max Socki, a senior research fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank, said the means-testing programs would help build political support for the bill.
“The details of any such scheme are basically lost on the voters, but upon hearing that it is not free for everyone, members like Manchin say, ‘We didn’t give the entire shop, we disciplined the program. ,” said Mr. Soki.
According to Molly Michaelmore, a professor of history in Washington, passing the bill to provide benefits to only low- and middle-income Americans may prove politically helpful in the short term, but it may pose a political problem in the long term. Can do. and Lee University which studies US fiscal policy.
Ms Michelmore said Social Security and Medicare have remained in place for decades because many Americans pay and benefit from them, making it politically difficult for lawmakers to try to cut them. A 2020 AARP poll showed Social Security with more than 90% support across political parties.
Social programs targeting poorer Americans in the US have historically been more vulnerable to cuts and political attack, he said, pointing to the 1996 welfare reform bill.
“Having that means-tested will reduce the constituency for that program and actually make it feel like welfare, which is politically toxic,” Ms Michelmore said.
Unlike Social Security and Medicare, however, the social programs on Mr Biden’s agenda will be funded by tax increases on the wealthy and businesses rather than payroll taxes.
The debate among Democrats has cut across typical ideological lines, with centrist and moderate Democrats in favor of the bill and against the means-tested elements of the bill. Centrists such as Mr Lamb who advocate universal benefits have also pushed for legislation to focus resources on a small number of programs over the long term. Progressives have advocated that Democrats fund a range of universal programs for fewer years and pressure future lawmakers to continue funding for-profits.
Some Democrats and outside advocates also argue that means-testing programs harm their efficacy. The need for Americans to prove their eligibility can create barriers to entry, lowering participation rates. They say the earnings of low-income Americans are sometimes volatile, meaning that some may change in eligibility over the course of a year.
“When you wave your hand and say we’re going to do a means-test, the details matter,” said Elizabeth Lower-Bash, director of income and work support at the Center for Law and Social Policy.
—Katherine Lucy contributed to this article.
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