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Democrats haggle over how to scale back their spending plan to win over centrists

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Democrats in Congress are trying to thread a seemingly impossible needle. On the one hand, they say they want to address huge economic challenges like education, child care, climate change and poverty. But in order for a bill to pass, they also need to keep the cost down to satisfy political demands from centrists like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Lawmakers are now haggling behind the scenes to find the right balance. But as NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell reports, doing that is far from simple.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: In the past few weeks, top Democrats have begun to accept that their plans for $3.5 trillion in new spending will have to be dramatically scaled back. That's thanks in large part to demands from Joe Manchin to cut the spending by $2 trillion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE MANCHIN: My number's been $1.5. I've been very clear, and I think you all have gotten an outline of how I got to $1.5.

SNELL: That outline involves ditching some of Democrats' top priorities, and since they need unanimous agreement among all 50 of them in the Senate for this bill to pass, leaders are looking for ways to make cuts. But progressives like Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal say they can't get there by cutting one program to save another.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: We are not going to pit child care against climate change. We're not going to pit housing against paid leave. We're not going to pit seniors against young people.

SNELL: The other option is to narrow the size and scope of the biggest policy promises. Elaine Maag of the left-leaning Tax Policy Center says the expanded child tax credit is one example of how hard it is to trim a program without undermining it.

ELAINE MAAG: We're coming off a program in 2020 where 27 million children were left out of the full benefit. Those children were much more likely to be Black and brown, and we don't want to implement policies that undermine efforts at improving racial equity at the same time.

SNELL: Democrats temporarily expanded the credit this year to cover those families, plus they made it a monthly payment instead of an annual credit. Now they want to make it permanent. Manchin says he supports a permanent version, but it would have to be trimmed back with new income limitations and work requirements. Maag says doing that could mean people with part-time jobs or seasonal work would be left out.

MAAG: We want the folks who have the most unstable incomes to be most willing to take advantage of the income-smoothing components of the legislation.

SNELL: And income limits on those benefits could mean tax increases for middle-class families who Biden promised would see no harm under this bill. Chuck Marr of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says Democrats have another option - instead of focusing on cutting the top line, they could expand plans to increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations to offset the costs.

CHUCK MARR: The real trade-off is between bringing down the size of the package, which is pitting the tax interests of very wealthy people, large corporations and people who cheat on their taxes, against these investments.

SNELL: But those increases don't satisfy centrist Democrats who don't want to vote for trillions of dollars in new spending. Democrats are facing the same dilemma with every policy in the bill, like expanding Medicare or providing universal pre-K. So party leaders are trying to keep everyone happy without gutting Biden's plans.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER MOMMY'S "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.