WASHINGTON — Emerging from a private meeting at the White House, Sen. Bernie Sanders said Monday that he and President Joe Biden are on the same page as Democrats draft a “transformative” infrastructure package unleashing more than $3.5 trillion in domestic investments on par with the New Deal of the 1930s.
Sanders and Democratic senators on the Budget Committee huddled privately late Monday at the Capitol with key advisers to the president during a consequential time for Biden’s top priority. Congress is racing to put together a sweeping infrastructure proposal for initial votes later this month. He and Biden had a “very good discussion,” he said.
“He knows and I know that we’re seeing an economy where the very, very rich are getting richer while working families are struggling,” Sanders told reporters at the White House.
Sanders said he and the president did not discuss a topline figure, but the Vermont senator mentioned his own more far-reaching $6 trillion proposal, which includes expanding Medicare for older adults. Later at the Capitol, he told reporters that the Democrats’ package would be bigger than $3.5 trillion, an amount floated as in line with Biden’s initial proposal.
Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden meet as infrastructure bill swells past $3.5T
“The end of the day we’re going to accomplish something very significant,” Sanders said.
Biden’s big infrastructure proposals are moving through Congress on various tracks — each potentially complementing or torpedoing the other.
A bipartisan group of 10 senators unveiled a nearly $1 trillion package of traditional infrastructure for roads, bridges, broadband and some climate change investments in electric vehicles and resiliency for extreme weather conditions.
Senators in the bipartisan group are struggling to draft their proposal into legislation but hope to have a bill ready as soon as this week. Disagreements are emerging over how to pay for it.
“Pay-fors are still up in the air,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D.
The rest of Biden’s ideas are being collected into the much broader multitrillion-dollar package that could be approved by Democrats on their own under a special budget reconciliation process that allows passage with 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the typical 60-vote threshold that’s needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer convened the meeting at the Capitol with Biden’s advisers and the Democratic senators. It stretched into a second hour as they worked on details of the package.
Sanders, as chair of the Budget Committee, has been leading his colleagues in a series of private conversations. A one-time Biden rival for the presidency, Sanders now holds an influential position shaping the president’s top priority.
“My job is to do everything I can to see that the Senate comes forward with the strongest possible legislation to protect the needs of the working families of this country,” Sanders said at the White House.
In blow to Bernie, $3.5T likely starting point for Dem-only infrastructure bill
Key negotiators expect the Senate Budget Committee to settle on a roughly $3.5 trillion reconciliation package as the starting point for a Democrat-only bill for "soft" infrastructure, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.
Why it matters: That total is well below the $6 trillion that Sen. Bernie Sanders — the Vermont independent who leads the committee — had initially proposed. Adopting it would be a blow to his fellow progressives.
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The emerging agreement will, however, cover all of the major Biden administration proposals on soft infrastructure, including the president's families, climate and housing programs, according to a source familiar with the Senate budget resolution discussions.
While negotiators are still finalizing details, the proposal is close to fully offset with new revenues, among other pay-fors.
The roughly $3.5 trillion could get shaved down further once the full Senate — including centrists like Sens. Joe Manchin (D- W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — extract their own demands.
The package will need the support of every Democrat on the Senate floor to pass.
Driving the news: Sanders is still pushing for a high number, telling the New York Times' Maureen Dowd for an interview published Sunday that $2 trillion to $3 trillion is “much too low.”
Sanders will have to convince centrists on the committee such as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who hasn’t revealed his top-line number but privately suggested it's more in the $3- to $4-trillion range.
After two weeks of staff negotiations, senators on the Budget Committee are expected to meet Monday evening to try to bridge differences on the total size of the package and how much of it needs to be paid with new revenues.
"A lot of work has gone into the effort and much more work needs to be done," said Mike Casca, a spokesperson for Sanders. "Sen. Sanders wrote a $6 trillion proposal to address the desperate needs of working people and the existential threat of climate change, and he’s confident that Democrats will come together around a reconciliation bill that does just that."
The big picture: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has declared he wants the budget resolution and the bipartisan infrastructure package both to pass the full Senate before senators leave for their August recess.
That timeline will put pressure on senators worried about having some of their recess canceled, which could complicate lawmakers' fundraising plans.
Go deeper: Revenues are emerging as a key dividing line within the Democratic caucus, with centrists like Manchin saying new spending will have to be paid for with new taxes.
Other centrists are uncomfortable with raising taxes on corporations, capital gains and personal income too high, which in turn puts a ceiling on any new spending.
Between the lines: The White House is taking a wait-and-see approach and wants to give Senate Democrats the space to compromise.
House centrists have no interest in voting for anything that can’t pass the Senate, including tax increases, putting most of the action in the Senate.
Joe Biden: 1M sign up for health care during special enrollment
President Joe Biden said Tuesday that 1 million Americans had signed up for health insurance under “Obamacare” during a special enrollment period for those needing coverage during the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden reopened the HealthCare.gov insurance markets in February for a special six-month sign-up opportunity that will go through Aug. 15. His coronavirus relief package also boosted taxpayer subsidies, making the coverage a much better deal for new and current customers.
“Health care is a right, not a privilege — and ensuring that every single American has access to the quality, affordable health care they need is a national imperative,” he said in a statement.
Biden has promised to build on President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act to push the U.S. toward coverage for all. He said the law known as “Obamacare” has been “a lifeline for millions of Americans” since it became law more than a decade ago.
Biden said the U.S. had made “enormous progress” in expanding access to health insurance through this special enrollment period.
However, the 1 million figure announced Tuesday by the White House also includes people who would have otherwise qualified for a sign-up opportunity, even without Biden’s special enrollment period.
A life change such as losing workplace coverage or getting married is considered a “qualifying life event” that allows people to sign up any time during the year. Last year about 390,000 people signed up because of life changes from Feb. 15 to Apr. 30, the government said, and in 2019 it was more than 260,000.
So the net number of new customers who could not have enrolled this year but for Biden’s action is likely lower than 1 million.
The number of uninsured Americans has risen because of job losses due to the economic hit of the coronavirus, but last year President Donald Trump’s administration resisted calls to authorize a special enrollment period for people uninsured in the pandemic.
Failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act as Trump, a Republican, repeatedly vowed to do was one of the former president’s most bitter disappointments. His administration continued trying to find ways to limit the program or unravel it.
A Supreme Court decision on Trump’s final legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act is expected this year.