WASHINGTON (AP) — A divided House moved toward passage of Democrats' expansive social and environment bill on Thursday as new cost estimates from Congress' top fiscal analyst suggested that moderate lawmakers' worries about spending and deficits would be calmed, giving the bill the votes it needs for passage.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told lawmakers in a letter Thursday evening that the chamber would soon begin final debate on the sprawling legislation. That would put the House on the doorstep of finally approving the package, a top priority for President Joe Biden that would bolster child care assistance, create free preschool, curb seniors’ prescription drug costs and beef up efforts to slow climate change.
“At the close of the debate, all that remains is to take up the vote — so that we can pass this legislation and achieve President Biden’s vision to Build Back Better!” Pelosi wrote, using Biden's name for the measure.
An initial batch of key figures released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office showed that its projections were aligning closely with earlier estimates from the White House. That included tax credits to spur clean energy development, a new required paid family leave program, bolstered child care assistance and caps on seniors' prescription drug costs.
Two weeks after centrists' objections forced Democrats to delay the measure, the bill began moving amid optimistic signs from leaders and lawmakers that their divisions were all but resolved — for now. Facing uniform Republican opposition, Democrats can lose no more than three votes to prevail in the House.
The CBO was expected to estimate that the bill's overall cost would be modestly higher than the 10-year, $1.85 trillion price tag Democrats have been citing. It was also expected to project the measure would produce deficits of perhaps $200 billion over the coming decade.
Biden and other Democratic leaders have said the measure would pay for itself, largely through tax increases on the wealthy, big corporations and companies doing business abroad. Early signs were that CBO's numbers were unlikely to derail the legislation, which exceeds 2,100 pages.
“Each of these investments on its own will make an extraordinary impact on the lives of American families," said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., ticking off the bill's initiatives. Noting that savings would come from higher levies on the rich and corporations, he added, “It's a helluva deal."
Republicans said the legislation would damage an economy already racked by inflation, give tax breaks to some wealthy taxpayers and make government bigger and more intrusive. Missouri Rep. Jason Smith, the Budget Committee's top Republican, used alliteration from Biden's name for the measure — Build Back Better — to mock it.
“Bankrupts the economy. Benefits the wealthy. And it builds the Washington machine," Smith said.
The debate came with Democrats hoping to move toward delivering a badly needed victory for Biden. For months, the bill has been delayed by infighting between party moderates and progressives over the measure's cost and the policies it should include.
Biden this week signed a $1 trillion package of highway and other infrastructure projects, which he's spent recent days promoting around the country. But he's been battered recently by falling approval numbers in polls, reflecting voters' concerns over inflation, supply chain delays and the persistent coronavirus pandemic.
After months of talks, lawmakers appeared eager to wrap it up, shelving lingering differences to begin selling the package back home. House Democrats said they were planning 1,000 events across the country by year's end to pitch the measure's benefits to voters.
Democrats have struggled to explain the far-reaching scope of the bill, with its health, child care and other provisions affecting millions of Americans. The internal battling has often overshadowed the actual bill, weighing down Democrats as they prepare for potentially difficult midterm elections next year.
House passage of the social and environment bill would send it to the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats have zero votes to spare. Significant changes there are likely due to cost-cutting demands by moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Senate talks could take weeks, and the prospect that Manchin or others will force additional cuts in the measure was making it easier for House moderates to back the legislation Thursday. The altered bill would have to return to the House before going to Biden's desk.
Even as lawmakers debated the legislation, Democrats were set to change it before the House votes to make sure it doesn't run afoul of Senate rules. Democrats are using special rules that would let the bill pass the Senate by a simple majority, not the usual 60 votes, but such legislation must follow certain budget constraints.
When moderates delayed House passage of the bill two weeks ago, they said they wanted to make sure the CBO's projections for its costs were similar to White House numbers, which showed the measure essentially paid for itself.
Some differences, however, were expected between the CBO and White House estimates.
A chief discrepancy was expected to be over a White House estimate that giving the IRS an additional $80 billion for stepped-up enforcement would yield $480 billion in new tax collections over a decade, a net gain of $400 billion. The CBO, using stricter estimating guidelines, was expected to envision half that amount in new revenue.
The House’s addition of a paid family leave program was also expected to increase the legislation’s cost. That program faces objections from Manchin and seems likely to be dropped by the Senate.
Some moderates have already said projections over IRS savings are always uncertain and would not cause them to oppose the measure. Others have said the measure's roughly $555 billion in tax credits and other costs to encourage cleaner energy need not be paid for in the bill because global warming is an existential crisis.
Critics have said the bill's overall cost would exceed $4 trillion if Democrats hadn't made temporary some of its programs they would actually like to be permanent. For example, tax credits for children and low-earning workers, top party priorities, are extended for just one year.
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
Alan Fram, The Associated Press