Democrats Face Tough Choices as They Look to Shrink Safety Net Bill

With moderates insisting that the cost of the measure dip below $3.5 trillion, Democrats have a number of options for scaling back their plan. None of them are easy.

By Emily Cochrane

WASHINGTON — Democrats are facing agonizing choices over what to keep and what to drop from their expansive $3.5 trillion social safety net package, as they labor to pacify the most conservative lawmakers in their ranks who have balked at its cost and scope.

With moderates and liberals feuding over competing priorities, Democrats have a variety of options for cutting the package down to size, from jettisoning proposed programs outright to curtailing them or using gimmicks to control their cost. But they have little room for error given their slim majorities in Congress, where they need the support of every Democrat in the Senate and all but a few in the House to deliver it to President Biden’s desk.

Top Democrats inched toward narrowing the differences in their ranks over the bill on Thursday, claiming progress on what they called a “framework agreement” on how to finance the plan. But they offered no details about what programs would be included or what the total cost would eventually be, and left crucial disagreements unresolved about which tax increases would be included, and how large they would be.

Among the issues at stake — even if the price tag remains at $3.5 trillion — are how long to maintain monthly payments to families with children, incentives for companies to transition to clean fuels, and the scale of tax increases for wealthy people and corporations.

“I’m not interested in checking a box and putting half as much money as is necessary to actually make an impact in people’s lives,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “The decisions will be tough, but I think we’d be better off to make the decisions, rather than to put a little money into everything.”

Hanging over the process are strict Senate rules about what can be included in the bill, which Democrats plan to push through using a fast-track process known as reconciliation that shields it from a filibuster but subjects it to stringent budgetary requirements.

Complicating matters further, key moderates who have called for a smaller package have yet to say how large a bill they could accept, or name their top priorities for inclusion.

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