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Progressives Are Urging Schumer to Restart Push for Climate and Social Spending

House Democrats say $555 billion in climate investments should be a starting point for negotiations in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks with an aide during a news conference following a Democratic policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on March 1, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Progressive groups are asking Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to restart negotiations on the budget reconciliation package that contains the bulk of President Joe Biden’s social and climate agenda, which passed the House under the banner of “Build Back Better” before stalling in the Senate last year.

Refusals by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and other centrists to support the legislation prevented the Senate’s razor-thin Democratic majority from reaching a 50-member consensus necessary for passage. The bill would have needed to pass through the special “budget reconciliation” process in order to dodge Republican obstruction in the evenly divided Senate.

Social and environmental advocates are emphasizing that there’s still a dire need to pass the policies the Build Back Better bill contained. Democrats are currently rallying around proposed spending on climate and clean energy programs, and progressive groups say relief for working people and families is badly needed due to the rising cost of fuel, food, and other necessities.

In an open letter to Schumer released on Monday, a coalition of more than 120 progressive organizations said the urgency behind the legislation is even greater now than when the House passed its version in November 2021. Schumer should restart negotiations over the legislation “energetically,” the groups said, and sections of the bill where there is “significant agreement” should start moving through committees now.

“Working people are facing rising costs for food, health care and other necessities and median rent prices rose an astounding 20 percent in 2021, furthering a national housing crisis,” the groups wrote. “Taking steps to decarbonize and build a green economy becomes more pressing by the day.”

Biden and many Democrats hoped to fund new climate initiatives and make an array of social investments through budget reconciliation, but Manchin balked at the original $1.7 trillion price tag and proposals designed to move the country away from coal and other fossil fuels, arguing that new spending would add to inflation. However, Manchin has signaled he may support a revised package that funds new programs with taxes on corporations and the wealthy that could also be used to lower the federal deficit, a major priority for the conservative Democrat, according to reports.

Even if Manchin supports a new package, there are concerns that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the other conservative Democrat who helped sink Build Back Better in the Senate last year, may oppose proposed tax hikes on corporations and top earners. Votes from both senators are needed to pass the package.

The package appears to be undergoing a rebranding. Biden did not say the words “Build Back Better” in his recent state of the union speech, and Schumer did not mention Build Back Better by name in a recent letter to colleagues that outlined Democratic priorities ahead of a retreat for lawmakers.

“In reconciliation, Senate Democrats have introduced additional legislative proposals to lower the rising cost of energy, prescription drugs and health care, and the costs of raising a family,” Schumer wrote to fellow Democrats. “Senate Democrats are focused on delivering on our promise to fight these rising costs.”

The coalition of progressive groups that released the open letter to Schumer on Monday did not use the words Build Back Better, either. They called the legislation a “reconciliation package” instead.

Whether the package will get a new name remains to be seen. Regardless, progressives are pushing Democrats to pass as much of the original package through Senate as possible, which may require breaking the bill up into smaller, individual pieces of legislation.

In a letter to Biden on Monday, a group of 89 House Democrats said that $555 billion in climate investments included in the House-passed bill could serve as a “building block” to restart negotiations.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the window of opportunity for salvaging a sustainable future is rapidly closing. People across the U.S. experienced the impacts of climate change in the form of extreme weather and raging wildfires last year. Given widespread agreement over the bill’s climate provisions in the Senate, the lawmakers wrote, the climate measures provide Biden and Schumer with a “key starting point” for negotiations.

“Responding now will protect American families and businesses against the most devastating financial impacts,” they wrote. “But the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be to transition at the speed required, and we will have incurred billions in damages and harm to our communities, infrastructure, environment, and public health and safety along the way.”

Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, said Democrats have a mandate to deliver after voters gave them control of Congress and the White House in 2020.

“They can rightly take credit for significant accomplishments, especially the American Rescue Plan,” Mitchell said in a statement. “But with the expiration of the expanded Child Tax Credit, and with investments in children and families, health care, elder care, housing, and climate hanging in the balance, the work is unfinished.”

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