• The San Juan Daily Star

With Biden agenda in limbo, Democrats work to sell an unfinished promise

Jill Biden, the first lady, center, with Rep. Susan Wild (D-Penn.), right, and Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, visit the Learning Hub in Allentown, Penn., Oct. 13, 2021.

By Emily Cochrane

When Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., accompanied first lady Jill Biden to the Learning Hub, a newly established early-education center whose walls were covered with vocabulary words in English and Spanish, on a recent Wednesday morning, Wild’s constituents were frank about the many unmet needs in their community.

Jessica Rodriguez-Colon, a case manager with a local youth house, described the struggles of helping families find affordable housing with rent skyrocketing. Brenda Fernandez, founder of a nonprofit focused on supporting formerly incarcerated women and survivors of domestic violence, explained the challenges of ensuring homes were available for those who needed them.

Biden had a ready answer: “It’s a big part of the bill,” she said, turning in her seat to Wild. “Right, Susan?”

Wild quickly agreed. The sprawling $3.5 trillion social safety net and climate package that the House compiled last month would address everything raised during the discussion. It would devote more than $300 billion to low-income and affordable housing, provide two free years of community college and help set up a universal prekindergarten program that could help places such as the Learning Hub, which serves about 150 children and families through Head Start, the federal program for preschoolers.

But left unmentioned was the uncertainty about whether any of that would survive and become law. A month after the House put together its bill, President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have trimmed their ambitions. Facing unified Republican opposition and resistance to the cost of the measure by a handful of centrists in their party, led by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Democrats are now working to scale back the package to around $2 trillion to ensure its passage through a Congress where they hold the thinnest of majorities.

For Wild and other Democrats facing the toughest reelections in politically competitive districts around the country, the ambiguity surrounding their marquee legislation makes for an unusual challenge outside of Washington: how to go about selling an agenda without knowing which components of it will survive the grueling legislative path to the president’s desk.

Polls show that individual components of the legislation — including increasing federal support of paid leave, elder care and child care to expanding public education — are popular among voters. But beyond being aware of a price tag that is already shrinking, few voters can track what is still in contention to be part of the final package, as the process is shrouded in private negotiations.

“We don’t want to be having to come back to people later and say, ‘Well, we really liked that idea, but it didn’t make it into the final bill,’ so it’s a challenge,” Wild said. “As the bill’s size continues to come down, you may be talking about something at any given time that’s not going to make it into the final product.”

To get around Republican obstruction, Democrats are using a fast-track process known as reconciliation that shields legislation from a filibuster. That would allow it to pass the 50-50 Senate on a simple majority vote, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tiebreaking vote.

But it would still require the support of every Democratic senator — and nearly every one of their members in the House. Democratic leaders and White House officials have been haggling behind the scenes to nail down an agreement that could satisfy both Manchin and Sinema, who have been reluctant to publicly detail which proposals they want to see scaled back or jettisoned.

Congressional leaders aim to finish their negotiations in time to act on the reconciliation bill by the end of October, when they also hope to move forward on another of Biden’s top priorities, a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that would be the largest investment in roads, bridges, broadband and other physical public works in more than a decade.

“As with any bill of such historic proportions, not every member will get everything he or she wants,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, wrote to Democrats in a letter before the chamber’s return Monday. “I deeply appreciate the sacrifices made by each and every one of you.”

Karen Schlegel, 71, who waited outside the Learning Hub with a mix of protesters shouting obscenities and eager onlookers waiting for a glimpse of Jill Biden, said she remained in full support of the president’s agenda. Schlegel blamed congressional Democrats for delaying the president’s plan.

“He would be doing better if he had some support from Congress,” she said, carrying a hot-pink sign professing love for both Bidens. “They better get a hustle on.”

Even Biden, as she trailed from classroom to classroom to watch the students engage in interactive color and shape lessons — and perform an enthusiastic penguin-inspired dance — avoided weighing in on the specifics of the bill.

“We already started when Joe got into office, and that’s what we’re fighting for,” she told the group, pointing to the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that Democrats muscled through in March as evidence of the success of their agenda. “I’m not going to stop, nor is Joe, so I want you to have faith.”

For lawmakers such as Wild, time is of the essence. Many Democrats are already growing wary of the prospects of beginning their reelection campaigns before voters have felt the tangible impacts of either the infrastructure bill or the reconciliation package.

They will have to win over voters such as Eric Paez, a 41-year-old events planner who wants Democrats to deliver and has little patience for keeping track of the machinations on Capitol Hill standing in their way.

“I need to come home and not think about politicians,” Paez, said, smoking a cigarette and waving to neighbors walking their dogs in the early evening as he headed home from work near the child care center. “They should be doing what we voted them in to do.”

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