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My confidence level that Democrats will get something significant done on their social agenda has just doubled. No, make that tripled.


Because one of the two most able people in Congress tells me that it will happen. No, not House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But her right-hand man, Richard Neal, the low-key but high-impact Springfield Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I think we are anywhere from 1.8, 1.9, to 2.3 [trillion dollars],” Neal said in an interview. “And that still is a heck of a lot of public investment.”

President Biden’s visit to Capitol Hill last Friday to meet with House Democrats underscored to both progressives and moderates that they have to compromise and come together on this, said the House’s chief budgeteer, adding that he’s already seeing important movement in that direction. So he truly believes the divergent Democrats will ultimately work this out and pass something consequential?

“Positively. I don’t think there is any option other than getting it done,” said Neal, whose record during both the Trump and Biden administrations is of doing just that, from the 2020 COVID-relief CARES Act to the American Rescue Plan earlier this year.


Now, if the package is coming down from $3.5 trillion over 10 years to something that is about half to two-thirds of that, some things have to give.

One logical candidate: The dental, vision, and hearing benefits progressives hope to add to Medicare, at an estimated 10-year cost of some $360 billion. In terms of health care choices, that should be less of a priority than a long-term effort to reduce premiums for health plans purchased on the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Or than providing health care for low-income citizens in those states that haven’t expanded Medicaid under the ACA. So given that Medicare expansion packages nicely as an election-year issue, it makes sense to wait on those benefits, or at least on dental coverage, which at an estimated $238 billion over a decade is by far the most expensive of those proposed benefits.


Free community college is another probable candidate for the chopping block. Community college isn’t that costly, particularly on a piecemeal basis and, with the labor shortage, there will probably be other pots of money for improving workers’ skills. Meanwhile, stricter limits or means-testing will probably have to be applied to other benefits, including the child tax credit.

Still, even if things are now getting back on (slower) track, what can be said about the unexpected late-September standoff between moderates and progressives?

Some of that, certainly, is on Biden, who was hoping to pass a Dom Perignon agenda with Miller Lite majorities. He also clearly made a mistake by leaving too much of the deal-making nitty-gritty to congressional leaders.

But considerable blame for political mismanagement also rests on the doorstep of Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.

Throughout the impasse, nearly every Democrat who wasn’t Joe Manchin was indignantly demanding that the West Virginia centrist couldn’t merely say what he was against but rather had to offer a top-line figure, thereby giving Democrats a spending target to build a package around.

It turns out he had. In late July, Manchin had told Schumer that $1.5 trillion was about as far as he was willing to go on a 10-year social-agenda spending measure. The two had even signed a memo that included such a limit, along with Manchin’s other concerns — but Schumer didn’t reveal that to other key players in the budget negotiations, let alone the larger political world.


Why not? His office didn’t respond to a request for comment, but his course was seemingly driven by a false confidence that he could win Manchin over to a larger spending package — and a territorial desire to run the Senate show on his own. (Manchin, of course, was only half his hold-out challenge; he also failed to bring Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona’s neo-mystical enigma, aboard for the larger package.) Instead, Schumer set Democrats up for an embarrassing impasse, with deadlock on the social legislation also freezing action on the infrastructure package.

That said, the notion that this is already a disaster for the Democrats is overstated. What it really has been is a shakedown cruise, one that revealed some miscalculation and miscommunications as well as a serious ideological fissure within the party.

Now it’s back to dry dock to see if the agenda can be fixed. If not, then the Democrats aren’t really a governing party.

But if Neal is right, and they pass a package in the $1.8 trillion to $2.3 trillion range, plus the $1.5 trillion infrastructure deal, they will have produced in a pretty impressive way. It will still be, to bowdlerize a line from a former vice president, a fairly big freaking deal.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.