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Democrats scramble to finalize spending package before Biden's trip abroad

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's a scramble underway in Washington right now. Democrats are trying to finalize a big package of social programs and climate protections before President Biden leaves the country tomorrow for a pair of international summits. But there's still disagreement about what should be in the bill and how to pay for it. For more on where things stand, we're joined now by NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about this bill today, and she said, quote, "When it's ready, it'll be ready." (Laughter) Can you offer any more insight than that?

MONTANARO: Well, let's see if I can give you a quick rundown. I'm interested to hear more of her thoughts, though.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: But Democrats continue to say they're close to a deal, but there are still some pretty big things to work out. Tonight, things are changing quickly, and we're learning that a paid family leave plan within this is unlikely to be in the final bill. Originally, Democrats wanted 12 weeks of paid family leave guaranteed. That was whittled down to four weeks in the past several days because of objections from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin about its cost. But now we're hearing that Manchin is against putting it in altogether because he doesn't want to expand social programs when the debt is already so high and can't be paid

for. You know, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tonight said, hold the presses, that it's not over 'til it's over, and that - get this - Manchin, at this 11th hour, wants to do his research on how it's done...

CHANG: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...In other countries.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: I have this image, Ailsa, of Manchin by an oil lamp, trying to Google all of this late at night.

CHANG: Oh, God.

MONTANARO: But - so I don't see how we're very close to a deal being definitely struck tonight.

CHANG: Yeah.

MONTANARO: But we're going to see. There's also issues with how to pay for this bill. That's also very difficult to come to agreement on. A new tax on billionaires' wealth is likely out because of concerns about its workability. Manchin of West Virginia and even the lead House Democratic tax writer Richie Neal of Massachusetts both appear to be against it. There are a whole bunch of other options being talked about, but there are no breakthroughs so far. At this point, White House staff have been on Capitol Hill all day trying to find an agreement. But they're saying they're taking it hour-by-hour.

CHANG: OK. So so much is still in flux.

MONTANARO: Yeah.

CHANG: And you know, as we mentioned, President Biden is going overseas tomorrow. And he wants to get some sort of deal before he leaves. So can you just tell us, why is that timing so important to him? And how involved is he in the negotiations right now?

MONTANARO: Well, first of all, he's been very involved in the negotiations. We heard Manchin say that he's been working 24/7 on this - the president has - that he's trying to find agreement among all parties that they can find concessions on. He's likely working the phones even tonight to figure out if there is some way to salvage something before this trip. Because it's really important to him that he has some framework that looks like the U.S. has agreed on - that his party has agreed on - because he's going to the G-20, the countries with the largest economies in the world, and this major climate conference. And there are lots of big climate measures in this bill...

CHANG: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...That he wants to be able to show leadership for the United States - that the U.S. is doing something. But not being able to find agreement with his own party certainly does not make him look great.

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah. Well, still, this bill - I mean, it is nowhere nearly as ambitious as Biden had originally proposed. So how are Democrats trying to address the possibility that voters could end up disappointed if Democrats don't get everything that Biden proposed?

MONTANARO: Yeah. They're saying, look. This thing is going to be still almost $2 trillion of a price tag, that there are a lot of things in it that Democrats should like - things like universal pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds, extending the child tax credit for a year and, you know, some measures for elder care. But this is an age-old issue, where Democrats...

CHANG: Right.

MONTANARO: ...Air a lot of their dirty...

CHANG: Right.

MONTANARO: ...Laundry and then don't seem happy with the result.

CHANG: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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