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Another Day, Another Delay: Democrats Come Up Empty Again

The Democrats are *this close* to a deal—except for all the major portions of the budget bill they still disagree on.

Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden, and Angus King speak to reporters about a corporate minimum tax plan
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden, and Angus King speak to reporters about a corporate minimum tax plan, at the U.S. Capitol on October 26.

Democrats are on the verge of finally finding agreement on President Biden’s extensive package of domestic policy proposals. All they need to do is come to agreement on, well, major portions of those proposals.

That was the sentiment Tuesday from Democrats on Capitol Hill and coming in and out of the White House. I spent all of Tuesday staking out members of Congress for quick interviews on the status of the infrastructure deal and the reconciliation package. I came away with a lot of vague statements of optimism, while lawmakers also conceded that major questions about the proposals were unanswered. They were sure that in just a few days—maybe hours!—all the major unknowns would become known. It would be a week, tops. Or maybe longer, Democratic lawmakers said. But it’s going to happen. Really.

What’s the longest it could take? “Well, we’ve been at this for eight months. Shit, I don’t know. Hopefully sooner than later,” Montana Senator Jon Tester told me Tuesday afternoon.

The certain uncertainty wasn’t necessarily reflective of broad agreement among Democratic holdouts on new revenue sources, or how to bridge the gap between moderates and progressives on a top-line number, or Medicare dental coverage for seniors. Rather, it was that more options were blossoming throughout Tuesday and into Wednesday.

Senators Ron Wyden, Elizabeth Warren, and Angus King unveiled a new corporate tax bill as a partial source of revenue for the set of proposals Biden’s seeking to pass through reconciliation. Tellingly and crucially, Senator Kyrsten Sinema didn’t object to it, despite previous signs that she would oppose just about any new taxes. The plan is built around a 15 percent minimum tax for corporations. The statutory rate is 21 percent, but it’s estimated that a few hundred corporations don’t pay even 15.

“This proposal represents a commonsense step toward ensuring that highly profitable corporations—which sometimes can avoid the current corporate tax rate—pay a reasonable minimum corporate tax on their profits, just as everyday Arizonans and Arizona small businesses do,” Sinema said in a statement shortly after the three senators released the broad strokes of their plan. “I look forward to continuing discussions with the White House and colleagues to expand economic opportunities, retain America’s economic competitiveness, and help Arizona families get ahead.”

Elsewhere, more details emerged. The White House has begun telling lawmakers the plan will include at least $500 billion on climate change–related measures. This should help progressives live with whatever emerges as the final deal. Specifics of measures on paid family leave and prescription drug pricing—one of the most popular topics in the bill that Democrats nevertheless struggled to come to any kind of agreement on—were still an unknown.

Democrats know they have to get this done, and they say again and again they’re close, but every day they don’t actually hammer out a deal is a day that risks a blow-up among the various factions involved. Delay also threatens further to weigh down Biden’s approval numbers, which have already taken a hit from the extended negotiations over the reconciliation package.

“It’s kind of the next phase where we all know we need to do something. There are issues that are still being hammered out, but we know we need to do something promptly,” said Senator Tim Kaine, adding that the Democratic caucus wanted Biden to have some kind of incoming measure to address climate change dramatically when he travels to the international climate summit that begins Sunday in Glasgow. “So I think we’ll get there, but we’re not there yet.”

In the same interview, though, Kaine backtracked and issued a caveat about how on track everything is. “I would say there’s nothing guaranteed about this thing until you and I see a final package,” Kaine said, before praising New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for her work on paid family leave proposals. He said that Gillibrand’s approach to negotiating on paid family leave was not pushing a one-size-fits-all proposal. It was about having backups. “A soon as anyone says they don’t like this, she goes, ‘Well I got plan B for you, I got plan C for you.’ She’s got a million good options,” Kaine said.

On Tuesday evening, Biden met with Sinema and Manchin at the White House—basically a daily event these days. Earlier in the day, a different set of lawmakers emerged from a White House meeting saying it was almost over. “We are close to a deal,” Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said.

There were rumblings that a deal could be announced sometime on Tuesday. Beatty said as much. But it didn’t happen.

The threat of collapse is still real. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said, “There are still several issues that are not done,” according to The Washington Post, adding that “dozens of our members” could vote to sink an infrastructure bill unless a satisfactory compromise emerged.

In all likelihood, though, progressives are going to have to concede even more, in one final compromise. Jayapal has been quick to note that they had originally wanted a top-line price tag way above $3.5 trillion (the operative number for the last few weeks), somewhere in the $6 trillion range. There’s still no word on a new top line, but Manchin has been saying he would like to see something close to $1.5 trillion, and most Democrats expect it to be somewhere around there.

The biggest tell in where Democrats are in this very murky period of lots of optimism with few specifics is the sense of urgency. No major faction is throwing up its hands and walking away—yet. Democratic leaders and rank-and-file Democrats are all saying the same thing: This has to happen and soon. “I think we can, I think we must,” Senator Tom Carper said, in a rambling response about how this would all unfold.

One could call that a new level of unity Democrats haven’t attained so far. But the reality is that they’re still negotiating with themselves.

Grace Segers contributed reporting for this piece.