WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s new $1.75 trillion framework to rewrite the social contract was an attempt to break a monthslong logjam and reach an agreement with narrow Democratic majorities.
But the keys to unlocking that elusive deal may be in the missing pieces from that proposal, as the party narrows its differences and sees growing optimism in all corners toward a final pact.
For instance, the framework made no mention of lifting the $10,000 cap on the state and local tax — also known as “SALT” — deduction, which a group of House Democrats from New York and New Jersey have demanded in the package.
“No SALT, no deal! I am confident it will be part of the final deal,” said Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., who has rallied fellow lawmakers to try and make the issue a red line in the bill.
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said Friday that “something is going to be done on SALT,” even though it was left out of the White House framework.
It’s unclear what the policy would be, exactly, but Democrats have discussed a two-year suspension of the $10,000 cap. That would cost about $156 billion, according to a January estimate by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.
Biden’s framework also included an expansion of Medicare to cover hearing benefits for seniors — but not dental or vision benefits.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the Senate Budget Committee chairman who holds a pivotal vote in the 50-50 chamber, has insisted that dental and vision benefits also be covered, saying they are “not negotiable.”
He called it a good framework that “has some major gaps in it.”
“I’m glad that we were able to get hearing aids, which will be a real impact on millions of older people in America. But I think we’ve got to move forward to dental as well as eyeglasses as well,” Sanders said.
But those benefits are expensive — particularly dental — and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has said he doesn’t want to expand Medicare without sorting out its long-term finances. Democrats have considered offering vouchers to seniors for dental and vision services.
Sanders wants to cover the cost by allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, which could save hundreds of billions of dollars, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
“Look, it is really outrageous that year after year, members of Congress talk about the high cost of prescription drugs and yet, year after year, we are not able to do anything about it,” he said. “So that’s the other issue.”
But that drug negotiation policy was also left out of the White House framework amid resistance from a small group of House Democrats and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., another indispensable vote who has forced the party to eliminate a number of tax revenue raisers from the bill to win her support.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he wouldn’t support a package unless it includes a Medicare drug negotiation policy that delivers meaningful relief on the cost of medication.
“I’m not going to accept a negotiation process that’s a fig leaf,” he told NBC News, noting that his party has campaigned repeatedly on lowering drug prices. “Senate Democrats are very much aware that there’s been a pledge for years and years and years now to change the law.”
Sinema isn’t the only question mark on drug policy.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a traditional ally of the pharmaceutical industry that has a large footprint in his state, has said he opposes the House policy to allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies. But he kept the door open to other options.
“I still want to find a way forward to deal with the cost of prescription drugs, which I have been working with Chairman Wyden on,” he said Thursday on MSNBC. “So, I’m looking forward to see how we can get there. But at least this framework is an opportunity to get to the final goal.”
Apart from SALT and Medicare changes, numerous Democrats are refusing to give up on including some form of paid leave in the package after party leaders made the decision to drop it earlier this week in response to concerns from Manchin. That includes Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has sought to convince the West Virginia senator to change his mind.
But unlike some of the other omissions, adding back paid leave is a long shot after it was cut alongside two years of free community college and tax rate increases for the wealthy and corporations to make the math of the bill work.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said on MSNBC that the exclusion of paid leave is not “settled” but that it would not be a “deal breaker” for her, because “the bill is transformational.”
Biden’s framework includes $1.75 trillion in spending proposals and $1.995 trillion in revenues, creating some cushion if not all the taxes are agreed to.
Menendez pointed to another unresolved issue: immigration.
Biden’s framework includes a $100 billion asterisk — in addition to the $1.75 trillion in spending — on the issue of immigration, without getting specific.
But that faces serious hurdles.
The Senate parliamentarian has rejected two proposals by Democrats to create a path to permanent residency for millions of undocumented people, including young so-called “Dreamers” and essential workers, saying they don’t comply with the rules of the budget process. Menendez has said the party is working on a third option to give them legal status, which many Democrats passionately want to enact.
“We’re still a long way there because of the Senate parliamentarian, but we have a mission not to take no for an answer,” he said.