Biden discusses $1.9 trillion top line for economic package and tells Democrats free community college is out

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President Joe Biden informed House progressives Tuesday afternoon that the final bill to expand the social safety net is expected to drop tuition-free community college, a major White House priority, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.

© Evan Vucci/AP President Joe Biden delivers remarks to promote his “Build Back Better” agenda, at the Capitol Child Development Center, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, in Hartford, Connecticut.

And the President discussed a $1.75 to $1.9 trillion price tag for the sweeping spending package, according to a person familiar with the talks. While the number is not finalized, it is far closer to West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s $1.5 trillion top line than progressives’ number, which was $3.5 trillion.

Moreover, he indicated that the child tax credit — a key Democratic priority — would likely be extended for one additional year, much shorter than what many in their party wanted, one of the sources said. The child tax credit will also likely be means tested, keeping with what Manchin had wanted.

Biden also indicated to the group that they would reduce the proposed funding for so-called homecare for the elderly and disabled — down to less than $250 billion, sources said. Democrats had wanted to keep the funding at $400 billion.

The President told progressive lawmakers that negotiators are weighing reducing the duration of the paid leave benefit outlined in the package to four weeks, down from a proposed 12 weeks, according to three sources familiar with the meeting.

Democrats for several days have grappled with how to address Manchin’s concerns over the scale of the program, according to multiple people involved, and have considered proposals to trim the total weeks of the program entirely, or to phase in the program over time, starting with a shorter duration and then expanding it over the course of a decade.

The President said they plan to keep an expansion of Medicare, which includes hearing, dental and vision — in line with what the progressives want.

California Rep. Ro Khanna also told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” on Tuesday that Biden planned to provide “community college scholarships” in the package.

Biden had called for making two years of community college free — a long-time priority for many Democrats. Some progressives — like Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — have pushed for even more, calling for making tuition free at public, four-year colleges.

The President has highlighted the free college proposal in speeches across the country for months, telling one audience in July he was “insisting that we have universal pre-kindergarten (and) two years of free community college.”

Biden, however, indicated the provision could be cut from the final plan late last week.

Speaking about his social safety net proposal at a child care center in Connecticut on Friday, the President said, “I don’t know that I can get it done, but I also have proposed free community college, like you’ve done here in the state of Connecticut, to help students from lower-income families attend community college (and) four-year schools.”

Former President Barack Obama proposed making community college free back in 2015, but it never happened on a federal level. Many blue and red states, as well as cities, have enacted some version of a law law making tuition free, but enacting the program at a federal level could have provided a much-needed jolt for two-year colleges, which saw a huge drop in enrollment during the coronavirus pandemic.

Khanna indicated to Tapper that the President wanted to keep universal pre-K, along with about $300 billion in investments to help combat climate change.

Debate over climate change within the final bill has not yet been settled — since progressives want to go much further and Manchin has resisted those plans.

Democrats are debating what they should include after Manchin said he would oppose an electricity standard to force utilities to use cleaner-burning fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% over the next decade.

“There is a wide menu of options” to replace the policy, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a close Biden ally, told CNN. However, Democrats have not yet coalesced around one specific replacement for their clean energy plan.

The party doesn’t have much time to act.

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told CNN that Senate Democrats agree they need to get a deal done this week, including a framework and a topline number.

Democrats have less than two weeks until the President is set to attend the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow. And while Biden did not explicitly set a deadline, he made clear in his meeting with Democrats that his goal was to have a locked-in framework agreement that would clear the way for a House vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before he arrives at the conference, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.

Khanna told Tapper that Biden “was focused on delivering something before he goes to Glasgow and he made a compelling case.”

“He looked people in the eye and said the prestige of the United States is on the line. I need this to go represent the United States overseas,” Khanna said.

Democratic leaders have pressed lawmakers to have an agreement before October 31 in order to move the infrastructure bill before the expiration of the short-term surface transportation funding patch. But while the timelines roughly line up, Biden pressed progressives in the meeting to ensure he had an agreement in hand before his arrival at the climate conference, noting the stakes for the US if did not.

One source in the meeting called it “the most forceful case I’ve heard him make on the need for an agreement on a specific timeline.”

Progressives, up to this point, have said they want the multi-trillion climate and economic package passed before they’ll provide the votes to pass the infrastructure measure.

This headline and story have been updated with additional reporting Tuesday.

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