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Here’s what’s in Democrats’ big social-spending bill — for now

Negotiations continue among Democratic moderates and progressives over President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan, a sweeping proposal targeting “human infrastructure,” climate change and other party priorities.

Biden and other top Democrats had been aiming for a $3.5 trillion social-spending package that would move in tandem with a bipartisan infrastructure
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bill, but objections from moderates have shifted the White House to considering toplines ranging from $1.9 trillion to $2.3 trillion.

As the party aims to reach agreement by Oct. 31, below are key proposed categories for the spending.

Free community college: Biden campaigned on making two years of community college tuition free, and the proposal is among the major parts of the Build Back Better Act. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently fretted that the idea could be cut from the package. “That would be a shame, because we’re so close to leveling the playing field for so many students,” he said in Detroit in September, Politico reported.

Universal pre-K: On the earlier side of the education spectrum, Democrats are proposing universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds. They would spend about $450 billion on universal pre-K and lowering the cost of childcare, according to the House Education and Labor Committee. As a result, most families would not pay more than 7% of their income on childcare, Democrats say.

Medicare expansion: The Democratic-run House Ways and Means Committee backs having the Build Back Better Act provide new vision and hearing services to Medicare recipients starting in 2022 and 2023, respectively, while dental benefits wouldn’t kick in until 2028. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent who typically votes with Democrats, criticized the delay for dental benefits last month, but the progressive lawmaker emphasized that the party is bound to have disagreements while trying to agree on its big social-spending package.

Let Medicare negotiate drug prices: Biden and other top Democrats have pushed for having the Build Back Better Act include provisions that would lead to Medicare negotiating the price it pays for prescription drugs
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but it’s not clear that will happen. The House Energy and Commerce Committee rejected that proposal last month following opposition from three moderate Democratic lawmakers. “These negotiations are going to take time, and it remains to be seen if there is any version of ‘direct negotiation’ that can get 50 votes in the Senate,” said Capital Alpha Partners analysts in a recent note.  

Expand on Obamacare: Democrats want to make permanent an increase in Affordable Care Act subsidies that were passed as part of the American Rescue Plan, or the COVID relief act. House leaders are reportedly leaning toward prioritizing the subsidies, as well as closing the Medicaid coverage gap in states where the program wasn’t expanded. Yet focusing on those two provisions at the expense of expanding Medicare would risk alienating Sanders, making health care one of the thorniest negotiations among Democrats.

Paid family and medical leave: All workers in the U.S. would get up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. In touting the plan, Democrats have emphasized that just 23% of Americans have access to paid family leave, with lower-wage workers the least likely to have it. Paid leave could increase families’ incomes by more than $28 billion, they say.

Clean electricity performance program: Reports emerged over the weekend that this program — which would provide grants to utilities that increase their use of clean electricity — is in jeopardy. Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, is opposed to the $150 billion provision, and other Democrats are crafting separate climate measures — such as making buildings more energy-efficient — with the expectation this program will be dropped, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Extended child tax credit: Expanded child tax credit payouts began in July, stemming from March’s $1.9 trillion stimulus law, but they’re due to fade away next year. The House Ways and Means Committee supports extending the new CTC payouts (up to $300 a month per child) through 2025, but some moderate Democrats want stricter income limits for recipients.

EV tax credits: The House Ways and Means Committee has proposed tax credits for electrical vehicles worth up to $12,500. However, automakers with non-union workforces such as Tesla
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have spoken out against a provision that would reduce the credits for their vehicles by $4,500, as only union-made vehicles assembled in the U.S. would qualify.

Paying for it: Democrats want wealthy Americans and companies to pay higher taxes that would fund their social-spending package, but they’re not in agreement so far on how to hike rates for top earners, capital gains and corporations. The House Ways and Means Committee’s proposed tax hikes are less dramatic than Biden’s, as MarketWatch has reported.

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