WASHINGTON — Democrats are treating Thursday’s announcement of the Build Back Better deal as just the latest series of proposals rather than the final product as they work to include paid family leave, lower drug prices, and other coveted policies in the final version of the bill.
“This fight is not over,” Sen. Ron Wyden said.
The package still needs to be passed by both the House and Senate, likely giving the party weeks to amend the bill if new deals can be reached. Senate Democrats made it clear Thursday they see the final product as still in flux.
Wyden continues to insist that it is “non-negotiable” that the bill include language to allow the federal government to negotiate the price of prescription drugs covered under Medicare. The current law bans the government from doing this. Pharma companies instead negotiate prices with individual insurers or benefit managers, who have far less leverage.
“This was a pledge that was made repeatedly to seniors,” Wyden said. “It is a must that this gets done.”
For years, Big Pharma has aggressively — and successfully — lobbied against letting the government directly negotiate prices. Given the Democrats’ fragile control of Congress, it takes only a single senator or a handful of House members opposing a provision to risk sinking the entire bill. Medicare negotiation was one of the planks of the Build Back Better Act taken out over months of negotiations.
But there is still hope it could be put back in. Sen. Chris Coons said the party is working on a modified proposal that is nearly done and could still be added.
“We are very close to having a path forward on that, but it wasn’t resolved in time to be part of [the bill released on Thursday]. I am hopeful. I remain hopeful,” he said.
Democrats had initially planned to use the bill to pass the country’s first universal paid family and medical leave program. The United States is the only developed nation in the world without a program that allows people to take paid time off to care for newborn children or ailing family members.
Paid family leave was one major policy cut out of the bill as Democrats shrunk the size of the package from $3.5 trillion over the next decade to $1.75 trillion on the insistence of centrist Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
But others aren’t giving up. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand cornered Manchin on the floor of the Senate on Thursday, vigorously lobbying him to allow paid leave to be included in the bill. When Manchin eventually tried to walk away to talk to another senator, Gillibrand followed him and continued her pressure campaign.
Afterward, she told BuzzFeed News that she is crafting new proposals to try to win the support of party holdouts. She did not give specifics but said one way to win Manchin’s support may be to set up a system where employers and employees contribute matching funds to be saved for paid leave.
There is also a push to close the carried interest loophole, which grants preferential tax treatment to private equity fund managers. For most taxpayers, bonuses count as income for tax purposes. But large investment fund managers are able to report their bonuses as capital gains, allowing them to pay a lower tax rate.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have denounced this loophole as an egregious gift to private equity managers. Former president Donald Trump said hedge fund managers were “getting away with murder,” but he did not close the loophole when he was president.
Democrats also say the policy is indefensible, yet closing the carried interest loophole is not included in the Build Back Better Act.
“I’ve been surprised at the number of senators who have said to me, ‘Ron, why in the world is carried interest not being eliminated now?'” Wyden said. But asked if there was a chance to get it back in the bill, he said he didn’t want to speculate.