Indy DC Download: Democrats push $1.9 trillion social safety net bill

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House and Senate Democrats face hurdles to enacting their $1.9 trillion social spending package, including surging inflation, intraparty disagreement over keeping paid leave and other provisions, as well as a crowded end-of-year legislative calendar.

Nevada's Democrats in Congress are pushing for passage of the so-called Build Back Better (BBB) Act as a follow-up to the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Congress sent to President Joe Biden, who will sign the bill Monday.

“It would be nice to deliver these” bills, Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) said in an interview before the Veterans Day recess, noting that unemployment in the Las Vegas area remains high.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Las Vegas metro area had an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent in September, ranking 374th out of the 389 metro areas.

“We need to help, still,” Titus continued.

But headwinds persist. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hopes to bring up the BBB in the House next week. She promised House progressives to bring it up the week of Nov. 15 to secure their votes for the infrastructure bill.

Lawmakers are waiting for a complete analysis of the bill’s cost by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO. The CBO, Congress' nonpartisan bean counter, released analyses Wednesday for four sections of the bill. But a total score may not come for days.

Pelosi said Friday that the scores on three more sections of the bill would be released Monday.

In a release Tuesday, CBO director Phillip Swagel said the score would be released piecemeal but that some sections are more complicated than others.

“The analysis of the bill’s many provisions is complicated, and CBO will provide a cost estimate for the entire bill as soon as practicable,” Phillip Swagel said.  

It remains to be seen if that will be enough for a group of five moderate Democrats who threatened to vote against the BBB unless they had CBO scores. 

Build Back Better Act

Democrats will need virtually every vote to pass the BBB and get the bill to Biden under the budget reconciliation process they are using. Reconciliation allows the majority in the Senate, currently Democrats, to pass legislation on a simple majority vote — getting around the need to round up 60 votes to override a filibuster. 

The upper chamber is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, so the vote of every Senate Democrat, and the vice president, will be needed. 

Pelosi can lose no more than three votes in the House and still get legislation through the chamber without any GOP support. Republicans do not support the Democrats' agenda proposal.  

Another big question is whether recent inflation statistics give any Democrats cold feet. The Consumer Price Index (CPI), the broadest measure of inflation in the economy, rose by 6.2 percent compared to a year ago, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday. The increase was the largest in 30 years.

The surge drew the attention of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who previously raised concerns about inflation as a reason for his push to cut the bill's total cost from $3.5 trillion to the current $1.9 trillion cost of the package. 

“By all accounts, the threat posed by record inflation to the American people is not ‘transitory’ and is instead getting worse,” Manchin said in a statement.  

The cost reduction means Democrats may yet have to make difficult decisions over what to keep and what to jettison from the package to stay under the topline funding level.

For example, a provision to provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year for workers was dropped after Manchin questioned whether paid leave even belonged in the bill. Pelosi revived the provision, reducing it to four weeks in the House version of the measure, but Manchin is expected to push the Senate to drop the paid leave language in their version.

Another possible problem could be tax credits in the BBB to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles (EVs). At a Toyota event in West Virginia on Thursday, Manchin was asked about a potential $4,500 tax credit that could be claimed to purchase a union-made EV. That would be in addition to a $7,500 EV tax credit already in the bill. 

“We shouldn’t use everyone’s tax dollars to pick winners and losers,” Manchin told Automotive News. “If you’re a capitalist economy…then you let the product speak for itself, and hopefully...that’ll be corrected.”

Immigration

Whether the bill gets an immigration provision also remains in question. 

Senate Democrats are waiting for a score from the CBO on their latest proposal to provide deportation deferral and work authorization known as parole to undocumented people. Under existing law, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is authorized to parole the undocumented into the country “on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.

The Senate proposal is identical to the provision in the House bill. Under the provision, eligible undocumented people in the country before 2011 would apply for parole for five years. That could then be extended through September 2031. Parole could help upwards of 130,000 people in Nevada, according to left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress.

Once armed with the CBO numbers, Senate Democrats, including Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), who is among those working on the issue, will present their case to the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough. She gives non-binding advice on whether bill language conforms to budget reconciliation rules. 

Reconciliation rules require that the budget impact outweigh the policy impact. So far, the parliamentarian has rejected two proposals for, in her view, violating the rule. 

Parole does not provide a pathway to citizenship. Just prior to the recess, Cortez Masto said she wants to see the parliamentarian’s ruling before deciding on a course of action.

She has not ruled out calling for ignoring the parliamentarian’s advice — a rare move in the Senate. That would require the presiding officer to agree to ignore the parliamentarian. The presiding officer is senator of the majority party who presides over the Senate and is charged with maintaining order and decorum, recognizing members to speak, and interpreting the Senate's rules, practices, and precedents.

It would take 60 senators to vote to overturn the presiding officer's position. 

“The parliamentarian only provides advice at the end of the day,” Cortez Masto said in an interview before the recess, adding that Senate Democrats have not given up on finding a way to include a pathway to citizenship. 

Nicotine tax

Though Nevada’s congressional Democrats want to get immigration and paid leave in the bill, they also want to see at least one provision dropped in the Senate — including a provision to tax nicotine  

The provision would tax products depending on the amount of nicotine, with higher rates for higher concentrations. The provision was changed from what was initially proposed, which would have doubled the tax on cigarettes. 

Members of the delegation are skeptical of the tax because it is regressive, meaning that it falls most on those who can least afford it. 

“Sen. Cortez Masto does not support any provisions that raise taxes on Nevadans making under $400,000 a year,” her office said Thursday. “She will continue to work with her colleagues to deliver tax cuts for middle class families, which has been her focus from the beginning of this process.”

Cortez Masto is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which makes tax policy in the Senate.

The provision would raise about $6 billion to offset some of the bill’s cost, according to Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV), a member of the House’s tax-writing panel, the Ways and Means Committee. 

Horsford has also raised concerns about the tax and is hopeful that it can be addressed in the Senate. 

According to the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the cost of smoking exceeds $300 billion a year in medical care and lost productivity. Those costs fall more on low-income people, and African Americans, in particular, are more likely to die from smoking-related illnesses than other groups.

In an interview before the recess, Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) stressed that the latest version of the tax is more focused on nicotine rather than tobacco products broadly.  

He acknowledged that there is disagreement over the tax, but he argued that the tax would help bring down the costs associated with smoking.

“It’s … a public health issue,” Neal said.

But focusing on nicotine, including vaping liquids, may not have the desired effect.

"Taxing based on nicotine content would favor low-nicotine liquids and could encourage increased consumption in the quantity of liquid," according to a recent analysis by the Tax Foundation.

Defense policy

White the House tries to pass the BBB next week, the Senate is expected to take up the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense policy bill. The House passed its version of the bill in September.

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) is eyeing the Senate bill as a vehicle for his measure to expand the Fallon Range Training Complex by more than 475,000 acres.

Amodei has been working with Cortez Masto’s office to try to add the measure as an amendment. 

“The Senator is continuing to engage with the Biden Administration, Senate Armed Services Committee, Congressional leadership, Representative Amodei, and all local stakeholders on the Navy’s expansion proposal to ensure that any expansion to the Fallon Range Training Complex includes input from all impacted stakeholders,” Cortez Masto’s office said.

Amodei’s bill also includes language similar to a bill introduced by Cortez Masto banning oil and gas exploration in the Ruby Mountains. 

Amodei’s bill would also establish almost 1 million acres of wilderness and conservation area designations.

The bill would also seek to settle disputes between the complex and the adjacent communities and tribes, including the Walker River Paiute Tribe. 

Since the 1940s, the Walker River Paiute Tribe land, located to the south of the complex, has been adversely affected by military testing and training exercises that resulted in the impairment and loss of land use. There are also concerns about uncatalogued cultural sites that could be destroyed as a result of the expansion.

The measure would create a comprehensive tribal and cultural resource program operated within the Department of Defense.

Appropriations and debt ceiling

Another complicating factor for passing the BBB is other must-pass issues congesting the calendar, including annual appropriations and raising the debt ceiling. 

Senate Democrats and Republicans are a ways from sitting down and negotiating topline numbers for the 12 annual appropriations bills, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, told reporters before the recess.

“We’re always talking,” Shelby said of himself and Democratic members of the spending panel. 

He added that discussion would pick up the closer Congress gets to the Dec. 3 expiration of the existing temporary spending law. 

That is the date the law extending the statutory debt limit expires. The Treasury is expected to keep funding the debt beyond Dec. 3 using accounting maneuvers and other so-called "extraordinary measures." But it's not certain when the limit will be breached.

To that end, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote to congressional leaders last month to say that “it is imperative that Congress act to increase or suspend the debt limit in a way that provides longer-term certainty.” 

Miscellany

Horsford welcomed the announcement of nearly $13 million for Nevada under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides subsidies for heating, cooling and weatherization costs. The funds were part of the temporary spending law that expires in early December.

“As Nevada recovers from the economic and personal toll of the pandemic, no family should be worried about how to keep their house heated this winter,” Horsford said in a statement.

The state also received $13.5 million from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) for grants to support Nevada’s travel and tourism economy. The funds were part of the American Rescue Plan pandemic relief law.

“Nevada’s travel and tourism industries suffered greatly due to the coronavirus pandemic, and I advocated to ensure that our state received essential funding to aid in their recovery through the American Rescue Plan,” said Rep. Susie Lee in a release. 

Titus announced that the Las Vegas-based Sunrise Children’s Foundation received a $4.1 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services for their Head Start program.

“These resources will allow Sunrise Children Foundation to continue providing valuable support to underserved children in Southern Nevada,” Titus said.

Lastly, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) helped launch a new bipartisan group focused on increasing women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and careers.

“We have an important role to play in making STEM education and careers more accessible for women,” said Rosen, the first former computer programmer to serve in the Senate. 

Rosen launched the Women in STEM Caucus with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). 

While women make up about half of the workforce, they hold less than a third of all STEM jobs, Rosen said, citing U.S. Census data.

For a full rundown of the measures the delegates supported or opposed this week, check out The Nevada Independent’s congressional vote tracker and other information below.

REP. MARK AMODEI

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R.5915 FHA Fairness Act