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As Biden's signature spending bill stalls, Democrats are forced to regroup

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden is conceding that efforts in the Senate to pass his signature spending plan have stalled. Democrats had been hoping to wrap it all up by Christmas. But conversations between the president and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the key holdout, are dragging on.

NPR's Deirdre Walsh covers Congress. She's here to break it all down.

So, Deirdre, does stalled effort mean bill is dead?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, A.

It doesn't mean it's dead, but it's definitely a big setback for the president and for Democrats in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been saying for weeks he wanted to vote on this bill by Christmas. But he needs all 50 Democrats to pass it. And he's just not there yet because of Manchin. In a statement last night, President Biden acknowledged this. He said he talked to both Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about his negotiations with Manchin. And he said, quote, "we will advance this work together over the days and weeks ahead. Leader Schumer and I are determined to see the bill successfully on the floor as early as possible." But the word weeks in that statement shows you just how far apart Biden and Manchin are trying to sort out some of these things. So it's going to take some time.

MARTINEZ: Do we know exactly what the issues are that Manchin cites in refusing to sign on to the bill?

WALSH: We do. I mean, he's talked a lot about inflation worries in recent weeks. So it's definitely a factor in him putting the brakes on this. The president has argued this package would actually bring down costs for Americans, especially health care costs. But on policy issues, Manchin is mainly focused on the child tax credit. There's an extension of that for one year in this bill. And he says he's worried about how much it would cost if it gets extended for more than one year. And he also just opposes some of the energy and climate change provisions in the bill. These are big-ticket items that are just going to have to be reworked to get his support. There's also some other issues that Democrats have been trying to resolve, including a tax credit aimed at state and local taxes in high-cost states, like California and New York. So the talks are going to continue.

MARTINEZ: And Democrats got another setback in their efforts to reform immigration laws. What happened there?

WALSH: They did. I mean, it was a rough day for Senate Democrats yesterday. The parliamentarian ruled the Democrats can't include a provision in this package that would give work permits to undocumented immigrants who've been in the United States since 2011. That would have protected them from being deported. Top Senate Democrats put out a statement last night saying they disagreed with the decision, and they're going to keep trying to get a path to citizenship in this bill. But this is the third time their efforts have been rejected to include any broad immigration policies in this package. And it just looks like the rules are going to prevent that from happening. I mean, advocates have really put their hopes on this vehicle being the way to protect millions in the country. So this is just sort of another major stalled item for the president.

MARTINEZ: All right. So the spending bill hit snags. Senate Democrats kind of all of a sudden been talking about - this week - another top priority, and that's voting rights legislation. What's happening with that?

WALSH: Well, as the spending bill prospects got shakier, they definitely pivoted to voting rights. I mean, this has been a top priority for Democrats. But they've been blocked by Republicans for doing anything about this. Advocates and some senators have been trying to push ahead. And, you know, yesterday a group of Democrats talked to the president and the vice president and talked about how they want to move something soon.

Here's Democrat Raphael Warnock from Georgia talking about the urgency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Our credibility is - the beacon light for free people is at stake. And this is the moral test. And so we have to get this done.

WALSH: But, A, just like the spending bill, Democrats don't have the votes under the rules now in the Senate to advance voting legislation. They would need 10 Republicans to agree. And they've already blocked this before. They're now talking about some kind of carve-out to get around the Senate filibuster. They're going to need Manchin to back that. He has been talking to them about it. But they also are looking at Senate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, who's signaled she had some concerns about changing Senate rules.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Deirdre Walsh - thanks a lot.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.