WASHINGTON -- A divided House finally launched debate Thursday on Democrats' expansive social and environment bill, with party leaders hoping that cost estimates expected from Congress' top fiscal analyst would nail down moderate lawmakers' votes and allow passage by week's end.
Two weeks after centrists' objections forced Democrats to delay the measure, the bill began moving amid optimistic signs from leaders and lawmakers that their divisions were all but resolved — for now. Facing uniform Republican opposition, Democrats can lose no more than three votes to prevail in the House.
The package, a top priority for President Joe Biden, would bolster child care assistance, create free preschool, curb seniors' prescription drug costs and beef up efforts to slow climate change.
Biden and other Democratic leaders have said the 10-year, $1.85 trillion measure would pay for itself, largely through tax increases on the wealthy, big corporations and companies doing business abroad.
A cost estimate on the bill, promised by Friday from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, was expected to show a modestly higher price tag and deficits of perhaps $200 billion over the coming decade. Early signs were that those differences were unlikely to derail the legislation, which exceeds 2,100 pages.
“Each of these investments on its own will make an extraordinary impact on the lives of American families," said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., ticking off the bill's initiatives. Noting that savings would come from higher levies on the rich and corporations, he added, “It's a helluva deal."
Republicans said the legislation would damage an economy already racked by inflation, give tax breaks to some wealthy taxpayers and make government bigger and more intrusive. Missouri Rep. Jason Smith, the Budget Committee's top Republican, used alliteration from Biden's name for the measure — Build Back Better — to mock it.
“Bankrupts the economy. Benefits the wealthy. And it builds the Washington machine," Smith said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she was hoping the chamber would vote on the measure later Thursday, reflecting Democratic plans to approve the measure before leaving for a weeklong holiday break. “This is going to be a wonderful Thanksgiving,” she said.
The debate came with Democrats hoping to move toward delivering a badly needed victory for Biden. For months, the bill has been delayed by infighting between party moderates and progressives over the measure's cost and the policies it should include.
Biden this week signed a $1 trillion package of highway and other infrastructure projects, which he's spent recent days promoting around the country. But he's been battered recently by falling approval numbers in polls, reflecting voters' concerns over inflation, supply chain delays and the persistent coronavirus pandemic.
After months of talks, lawmakers appeared eager to wrap it up, shelving lingering differences to begin selling the package back home. House Democrats said they were planning 1,000 events across the country by year's end to pitch the measure's benefits to voters.
Democrats have struggled to explain the far-reaching scope of the bill, with its health, child care and other provisions affecting millions of Americans. The internal battling has often overshadowed the actual bill, weighing down Democrats as they prepare for potentially difficult midterm elections next year.
House passage of the social and environment bill would send it to the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats have zero votes to spare. Significant changes there are likely due to cost-cutting demands by moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Senate talks could take weeks, and the prospect that Manchin or others will force additional cuts in the measure was making it easier for House moderates to back the legislation Thursday. The altered bill would have to return to the House before going to Biden's desk.
Even as lawmakers debated the legislation, Democrats were set to change it before the House votes to make sure it doesn't run afoul of Senate rules. Democrats are using special rules that would let the bill pass the Senate by a simple majority, not the usual 60 votes, but such legislation must follow certain budget constraints.
When moderates delayed House passage of the bill two weeks ago, they said they wanted to make sure the CBO's projections for its costs were similar to White House numbers, which showed the measure essentially paid for itself.
Some differences, however, were expected between the CBO and White House estimates.
A chief discrepancy was expected to be over a White House estimate that giving the IRS an additional $80 billion for stepped-up enforcement would yield $480 billion in new tax collections over a decade, a net gain of $400 billion. The CBO, using stricter estimating guidelines, was expected to envision half that amount in new revenue.
The House’s addition of a paid family leave program was also expected to increase the legislation’s cost. That program faces objections from Manchin and seems likely to be dropped by the Senate.
Some moderates have already said projections over IRS savings are always uncertain and would not cause them to oppose the measure. Others have said the measure's roughly $555 billion in tax credits and other costs to encourage cleaner energy need not be paid for in the bill because global warming is an existential crisis.
Critics have said the bill's overall cost would exceed $4 trillion if Democrats hadn't made temporary some of its programs they would actually like to be permanent. For example, tax credits for children and low-earning workers, top party priorities, are extended for just one year.
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.