WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats have begun privately weighing a sprawling economic package that could be as large as $6 trillion even as a bipartisan group of senators works to draw support for a much narrower infrastructure plan that would devote $579 billion in new money to fund physical public works projects.
The details of both plans remain in flux, as lawmakers work to maneuver some, if not all, of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda around the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate and past razor-thin margins in the House. For now, the divergent efforts are proceeding in parallel, with centrist senators in both parties pushing forward on their compromise proposal and Democrats preparing to use the fast-track budget process known as reconciliation to avoid a Republican filibuster of their far larger plan.
“The truth is both tracks are moving forward very well, and both tracks need each other,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. “We want to work with our Republican colleagues on infrastructure where we have common ground, and Democrats believe we have other priorities that the Senate must consider above and beyond a bipartisan infrastructure bill.”
The breadth of those priorities became clearer in a meeting Schumer convened with Democrats on the Budget Committee on Wednesday, where lawmakers discussed taking unilateral action on a package that could be as large as $6 trillion, with at least half of it paid for, should the bipartisan talks fail to produce a deal, according to four people familiar with the discussion. The details of the emerging discussions were reported earlier by Politico.
Democrats discussed potentially including measures to expand Medicare, including lowering the eligibility age to 60 and expanding benefits for all beneficiaries to cover dental, hearing and vision care, according to three of the people, who disclosed details on condition of anonymity because they were still in flux. Broadening Medicare has long been a priority of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and chairman of the Budget Committee.
“What we are working right now is on a budget that builds on the proposals that the president has brought to us,” Sanders said on Thursday, adding that he wanted provisions to address climate change and tax increases for wealthy corporations and individuals. “We’ve got to deal with the structural problems facing America.”
Democrats also discussed incorporating revisions to immigration law in the package, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters on Wednesday, calling it a “big-picture” discussion given that the strict budgetary rules governing the reconciliation process could force lawmakers to modify or jettison priorities in the package.
But Democrats acknowledged that a final package might be smaller and narrower than the ambitious proposals discussed on Wednesday, given that all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats and nearly every House Democrat will have to support the measure for it to become law. Republicans have long resisted the scope of spending Biden and other Democrats have pushed for, and it is unlikely they will support the reconciliation package.
“If you’re doing a package like this and try to get 50 out of 50, there’s two ways to get 50 out of 50: take out things that people don’t like, or add in things that they like so much that they’re willing to support things that they don’t love,” Kaine said.
While liberal Democrats have urged their leaders to abandon discussions with Republicans, moderate Democrats have been reluctant to give up a bipartisan agreement to fund roads, bridges, waterways, broadband and other physical projects. They have spent the week huddling with Republicans to hammer out the details of the $579 billion in new spending that would be part of an overall package that would cost $1.2 trillion over eight years, including expected continuation of existing federal programs.
Schumer met with the moderate Democrats on Thursday to discuss their progress, a day after the bipartisan group announced that it had drawn the support of 21 senators for its tentative framework. While the group has not made the plan public, an outline circulating on Capitol Hill said it would include $110 billion in new funding for roads and bridges, $65 billion for broadband, $25 billion for airports and $55 billion for water infrastructure.
Ten moderate senators who spearheaded the talks — including Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah, both Republicans, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a Democrat — huddled with a broader bipartisan group on Wednesday. Soon after, the group joined five Democrats and six Republicans in professing support for “this bipartisan framework that provides a historic investment in our nation’s core infrastructure needs without raising taxes.”
“They’re off to a great start — the details will matter, as they put it together,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, one of the Republicans who met with the group this week, but did not sign onto the framework. “I think what most people were signing on to yesterday, it was an overall structure proposal, and I think it’s encouraging.”