fb-pixel Skip to main content

Biden scales back his agenda in hopes of bringing moderates onboard

President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before departing the Capital Region International Airport in Lansing, Mich., Oct. 5, 2021.DOUG MILLS/NYT

WASHINGTON — President Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress in recent days have slashed their ambitions for a major expansion of America’s social safety net to a package worth about $2 trillion or less, which will force hard choices about how to scale back or discard key portions of the president’s agenda.

The figure is substantially less than Biden’s initial $3.5 trillion collection of spending programs and tax increases, which covered everything from climate change and education to a wide range of economic issues.

But the president has acknowledged that he and Democratic leaders will need to pare down their plan in a concession to two centrist holdouts, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have said repeatedly they would not support the larger version of the bill.


Biden told reporters Monday that the bill would necessarily shrink as he courted Sinema’s and Manchin’s support. “I laid out what I thought it should be,” he said. “It’s not going to be that. It’s going to be less.”

In a private meeting with House Democrats Friday, Biden said he expected the final bill to be worth somewhere in the $2 trillion range, according to a person familiar with the exchange.

That shrinking price tag has forced White House officials to begin weighing how to reduce the long list of spending initiatives and tax breaks for families embedded in the sprawling bill that Democrats are trying to pass with a majority vote using a process that bypasses a Republican filibuster in the Senate. They are discussing whether to try to keep as many programs as possible but reduce their cost by limiting their duration or how many Americans can benefit from them, or to cut some initiatives entirely to keep others largely intact.

Lawmakers and progressive interest groups have begun lobbying Democratic leaders and the White House to keep their preferred spending programs in the bill, all or in part. Biden has not yet said what he would cut. He flew to Michigan Tuesday, where he was set to give an afternoon speech extolling the benefits not only of the spending bill but also of a smaller, bipartisan infrastructure bill that carries Biden’s plans for roads, rail, the electric power grid, broadband Internet, and more.


The infrastructure bill has passed the Senate but not the House.

Lobbyists and interest groups have parsed recent comments by the president and his team for clues as to what might be cut from the larger bill. For example: a White House fact sheet before the Michigan speech including a long list of statistics on the number of state residents who would be helped by Biden’s plans to subsidize child care, provide universal prekindergarten, build affordable housing, invest in child nutrition and more. But it notably did not mention a paid leave program for workers that was a cornerstone of Biden’s initial economic plans.

Aides say privately that Biden is pushing Manchin and Sinema to spend as much as possible in the final bill. Administration officials also say the reduced cost of spending and tax cuts in the bill means Democrats will have an easier time settling on the revenue increases — including tax hikes on high earners and corporations — to cover the price tag.

Biden told House Democrats in a closed-door meeting last week that a scaled-back effort could still deliver on fundamental promises Democrats had made voters for years.


Progressives have urged the president and congressional Democrats to hold out for as much spending as possible in the final bill.

“If the final package fails to meet this moment, it will be a squandered opportunity of historic consequence,” said Lindsay Owens, executive director of the progressive Groundwork Collaborative in Washington. “These aren’t just numbers on a page or props for political posturing; every dollar represents real investments in climate, housing, caregiving and other critical programs our communities need to survive and thrive.”

On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders have now set their sights on Oct. 31 as a self-imposed deadline to pass both the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the sprawling domestic policy package.

Some Democrats also want Biden to be able to highlight an array of climate provisions when he heads to a global climate summit in Glasgow, in November.

“None of this is going to be easy; it will require sacrifice, compromise and finding common ground,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat from New York, the majority leader, said Monday as the Senate returned from the weekend. “Nobody is going to get everything they want. But no matter what, our final proposal will deliver the core promise we made to the American people.”