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Biden and Democrats admit they won't be passing Build Back Better before Christmas

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It became clear this week that Democrats are not getting a $2 trillion spending bill for Christmas this year. After a flurry of last-ditch meetings and negotiations, President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are admitting they don't have the votes to pass Biden's massive social and climate spending package, otherwise known as Build Back Better. Here's how Schumer explained it today.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: The President requested more time to continue his negotiations, and so we will keep working - working with him hand-in-hand.

CORNISH: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell joins me now to talk about what all of this means for Democrats. Welcome back, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: This is not the first or the second time Democrats have sent a deadline for themselves - right? - to pass this legislation. How is this time different?

SNELL: Well, the biggest difference here is that this time there are actual stakes beyond some, you know, immediate political embarrassment that they had before. This time, the monthly child tax credit payments that started back in July are now officially over. Those expanded benefits were part of the American Rescue Plan and they're set to expire at the end of this month, but the last payments went out this week. You know, Democrats wanted to pass this bill in the Senate before Christmas so they could finish any, you know, final work in the house and do whatever they needed to do to get it to the president to keep the payments going, but that's not going to happen now. Democrats say they could theoretically just make double payments in February to make up for it, but that would mean that they would have to pass a bill quickly when they get back into town in January, and that means that millions of people will not be getting payments in January. And this is a program that is credited with keeping more than 3 million kids out of poverty.

CORNISH: And yet, is it any more likely they can do it in January?

SNELL: Well, it's really hard to say because it comes down to one very familiar question - what does West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin want? So lately, the fight has centered around that child tax credit. Manchin has said he's worried about the long-term cost of the credit because Democrats do say they'd like to make it permanent someday. But this bill only extends the provision for a year, and that's in part because Manchin essentially demanded that several rounds of negotiations ago. So Manchin says he supports the credit, but it's very unclear what his actual substantive demands are. And there are real concerns, particularly among members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, that he's never going to make those clear.

CORNISH: Right. There - many months, the progressive members didn't want to allow votes on the bipartisan infrastructure bill because they feared it would ruin their leverage to try and get Manchin and other centrists to agree on this one. So how are they reacting now?

SNELL: Well, they are extremely unhappy. You know, congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who is the chair of the Progressive Caucus in Congress - she put out a statement saying that the Senate should stay in session until this is all done. And she said delaying passage would have devastating consequences. Jayapal was clear that her members worked with the White House and the Senate and agreed to move forward on legislation based on a promise from Biden that he could deliver the votes needed to get the bill passed in the Senate. You know, there's all this bubbling frustration, but there's not much these progressives can do. It is a moment where it really does come down to whether or not they can get Manchin onboard.

CORNISH: In the meantime, how are Republicans responding?

SNELL: Well, it's a little bit of them saying I told you so to Democrats. You know, Manchin did meet with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week, and it was for unspecified reasons. But McConnell has said he doesn't expect Manchin, you know, will be switching parties or anything right now, but he has suggested it to Manchin in the past, and other Republicans have said similar things. They're also very quick to point out that Democrats need unanimity within their own party to pass this because Democrats refuse to work with Republicans on any of it. They basically say this isn't 49 Democrats versus one Joe Manchin, it's 51 senators versus 49 senators.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks so much.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.