Biden Scales Back $2T Plan: Free Community College Unlikely

WASHINGTON (AP) -
The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Scaling down his ambitious domestic agenda, President Joe Biden has described a more limited vision to Democratic lawmakers of his $2 trillion package for addressing climate change and expanding social services.

Likely to be eliminated or shaved back: plans for tuition-free community colleges, a path to permanent legal status for certain immigrants in the U.S. and a clean energy plan that was the centerpiece of Biden’s strategy for fighting climate change.

The President met privately Tuesday with nearly 20 centrist and progressive lawmakers in separate groups as Democrats appeared ready to abandon what had been a loftier $3.5 trillion package in favor of a smaller, more workable proposal that can unite the party and win passage in the closely divided Congress.

Child tax credits, paid family leave, health care and free pre-kindergarten are still in the mix, according to details shared by those familiar with the conversation and granted anonymity to discuss the private meetings.

Biden felt “more confident” after the day of meetings, said press secretary Jen Psaki. “There was broad agreement that there is urgency in moving forward over the next several days and that the window for finalizing a package is closing,” she said.

After months of fits and starts, Democrats are growing anxious they have little to show voters despite their campaign promises. Biden’s ideas are all to be funded by tax hikes on corporations and the wealthiest individuals, those earning more than $400,000 a year.

The President especially wants to advance his signature domestic package to bolster federal social services and address climate change by the time he departs for a global climate summit next week.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a progressive caucus member, said Biden urged the lawmakers to “get something done now” to show U.S. leadership on climate change on the global stage.

“He really believes American leadership, American prestige is on the line,” Khanna said.

A key holdout on Biden’s proposals, conservative Sen. Joe Manchin from coal-state West Virginia, has made clear he opposes the President’s initial Clean Energy Performance Plan, which would have the government impose penalties on electric utilities that fail to meet clean energy benchmarks and provide financial rewards to those that do — in line with Biden’s goal of achieving 80% “clean electricity” by 2030.

Instead, Biden focused in his Tuesday meetings on providing at least $500 billion in tax credits, grants and loans to fight climate change, much of it likely coming from a package compiled by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Finance Committee. Those include the tax breaks for energy producers that reach emission-reduction goals.

That clean energy approach could better align with Manchin’s stated goal of keeping a “fuel neutral” approach to federal policy that does not favor renewable energy sources over coal and natural gas that are dominant in his state.

Other climate-change-fighting proposals being considered are a tax on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels such as oil and coal or a methane emissions fee — though Manchin told reporters earlier in the day that a carbon tax was not in the mix.

Failure to act on climate change would have far-reaching consequences in the U.S. and abroad. Inaction, proponents of big efforts say, could cost the U.S. billions of dollars in weather-related disasters and threaten to uproot millions of Americans in hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and floods.

On other fronts, Biden and the Democrats appeared to be more readily coalescing around a slimmed-down package.

Biden wants to extend the $300 monthly child tax credit that was put in place during the COVID-19 crisis for another year, rather than allow it to expire in December.

The policy has been praised for sending cash to families most in need. Democrats want to extend the credit for additional years, but limiting the duration would help shave the costs. It’s now to be phased out for single-parent households earning more than $75,000 a year, or $150,000 for couples, but those income thresholds could be lowered to meet demands of Manchin and more conservative Democrats.

What had been envisioned as a months-long federal paid family leave program could be shrunk to as few as four weeks.

With Republicans fully opposed to Biden’s plans, the President needs all Democrats in the 50-50 split Senate for passage and can only spare a few votes in the House.

Congress has set an Oct. 31 deadline for passage.