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VOL. 45 | NO. 44 | Friday, October 29, 2021

Bucking Manchin, House puts paid leave back in budget bill

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats in the House said Wednesday that paid family and medical leave will be added back into their $1.75 trillion social services and environmental bill, reviving a key element of President Joe Biden's agenda as they rush to finish the package after dismal overnight election results.

Biden had reluctantly dropped a scaled-back paid leave proposal from last week's White House framework after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., balked at the cost. But Democrats who have lobbied for a paid leave program as a Democratic priority for decades continued to push it, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Wednesday it would be part of the House's massive package.

The family leave provision is expected to include four weeks of paid time off for people to recover from major illness, childbirth or to care for family members, according to three people familiar with the legislation who requested anonymity to discuss it. It is expected to be fully paid for, offset by revenues elsewhere.

It's "a policy that will finally give workers and their families the peace of mind of knowing that when disaster strikes, they can rely on paid leave to avoid total crisis," said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal said in a statement.

The last-minute addition comes as Democrats are desperate to deliver on Biden's signature domestic proposals after grim election results overnight in Virginia, where voters chose a Republican political newcomer, Glenn Youngkin, over seasoned Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor. That amounted to a warning for Democrats that their grip on power could be in peril in next year's midterms.

Most voters in Virginia said drawn-out negotiations in Washington over Biden's governing agenda were an important factor in their vote, so blame was flowing to Capitol Hill as Democrats have spent months arguing over details of the package.

They are now rushing to shelve differences, particularly with holdouts Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. The final 1600-page plus bill text is set to be released ahead of a Wednesday hearing and House votes as soon as this week.

"We've got to produce," Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told reporters at the Capitol. "We've got to get results for people."

In announcing the paid family leave program, Pelosi acknowledged opposition from a single senator, a reference to Manchin. Pelosi's strategy now seems intent on passing the most robust bill possible in her chamber and then leaving Manchin, Sinema or others to adjust or strip out the portions they won't agree to in the Senate.

"We must strive to find common ground in the legislation," Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues.

Still, the final details of Biden's big proposal are coming into shape.

Along with the addition of the paid family leave program Democrats on Tuesday added a plan to lower prescription drug costs for most older people, capping out-of-pocket Medicare costs at $2,000 and reducing the price of insulin.

Both proposals for paid family leave and lower prescription drug costs have been longtime priorities for Democrats that were teetering amid in-party disputes.

Manchin wants Democrats need to take more time in negotiations, and panned the paid-leave announcement, suggesting it could be done separate from Biden's package or "in a bipartisan way."

Biden needs Democrats in Congress to draft a final bill that can pass both chambers, where they have a slim majority in the House and need every vote in the 50-50 Senate. The overall bill faces united opposition from Republicans.

"Passing such transformative legislation is not easy," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday opening the chamber. But he said, "It will be well worth it."

The $1.75 trillion package would provide large numbers of Americans with assistance to pay for health care, education, raising children and caring for elderly people in their homes. It also would provide some $555 billion in tax breaks encouraging cleaner energy and electrified vehicles, the nation's largest commitment to tackling climate change.

Much of its costs would be covered with higher taxes on people earning over $10 million annually and large corporations, which would now face a 15% minimum tax in efforts to stop big business from claiming so many deductions they end up paying zero in taxes.

The deal struck to lower Medicare drug prices was not as sweeping as Democrats had hoped for, but a compromise with Sinema, who supports it.

For the first time, Medicare will be able to negotiate prescription drug prices in its Part B and Part D programs. The $2,000 cap on out-of-pocket costs would benefit those older Americans with the Part D prescription drug benefit, who number some 48 million, Democrats said.

The new monthly cap on the price of insulin would lower the price to no more than $35 a dose, and there would be an "'inflation' rebate policy to protect consumers from egregious annual increases in prices," Schumer said.

AARP, the powerful organization for older Americans, signaled support as it waits for details.

But Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America president and CEO Stephen J. Ubl said the proposal "gives the government the power to dictate how much a medicine is worth."

On another issue, Democrats neared agreement on a plan to do away with the $10,000 limit on state and local tax deductions that particularly hits New York, California and other high-tax states and was enacted as part of the Trump-era 2017 tax plan.

While repeal of the so-called SALT deduction cap is a priority for several northeastern state lawmakers, progressives want to prevent the super-wealthy from benefiting. Under an emerging plan, the cap would be repealed from 2021 to 2025, but reinstated from 2027 to 2031, according to a person who requested anonymity to discuss the private talks.

One daunting issue remains over immigration law changes being pushed by a core group of House Democrats. They have suggested they will withhold their votes unless provisions are included to protect from deportation some immigrants who are in the U.S. without legal standing. Manchin has opposed many of the suggested immigration changes.

Some moderate Democrats in the House said they want to see the final assessment from the Congressional Budget Office on the overall Biden package's budgetary costs before taking the vote.

___

Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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