Dems weigh ditching Medicare expansion and paid leave in 11th hour of social spending talks

Senior Democratic aides said that discussions about Medicare and paid time were still ongoing as negotiations continued over the weekend. White House and Senate leadership aides denied that the provisions were being withdrawn. Andrew Bates, spokesperson for the White House, stated that both sides are false.
These two central components of the bill are at risk as Democrats push for a framework to expand social spending. Both Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said they wanted a deal by this week's end. However, Manchin and the White House are still not able to agree on a number that will be the bill's topline. Manchin has repeatedly stated his support for $1.5 trillion.

Paid leave and Medicare extension may not be included in a package that meets Manchin's preferred price.

The party originally proposed scaling back its priority on the health care front. This included temporary expansions of Medicaid, Medicare benefits, and Obamacare subsidies. However, centrists in both the House and Senate made it difficult to cut more than $1 trillion from this package.

Due to their $350 million price tag, and the wave of opposition from the health care sector, the proposed new Medicare benefits were always vulnerable. Private insurance companies and dentists are among those lobbying against Sanders-backed expansion. Their profits would be reduced if more seniors were enrolled in traditional Medicare, and they didn't need to purchase supplemental private plans that covered their hearing aids, glasses, and dentures.

Many Democrats saw Medicare benefits as a threat in the effort to expand Medicaid to millions more low-income individuals in conservative states. This was because the two provisions were competing to receive the same amount of money.

Biden has been pitching lawmakers to convert the dental benefit, which is the most costly and logistically difficult of the three Medicare expansions, into an $800 per year voucher for care. Although progressives have been opposed to conservative efforts to transform Medicare into a voucher program for many decades, they were skeptical of the idea. However, they acknowledged that it could help seniors get assistance sooner given that the House legislation did not roll out the dental benefit until 2028.

Some lawmakers suggested that dental care should be abandoned and that attention should be given to vision and hearing. Others advocated for just a few more years, believing that these benefits would prove so popular that Congress would have to continue them.

Even those reduced versions are not enough to win the support of centrists in the Senate. This supports projections that the whole Medicare-expansion plank might be scrapped.

Sanders insists to POLITICO that the benefits are not coming.

He said that the expansion of Medicare to include vision, hearing, and dental care is the most important and popular provision in the bill. It's what the American people want.

Sanders and other progressives saw the benefits expansion already as a concession. This was despite having originally pushed for lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 65 from 60 to 60. They now fear losing their votes for the broader bill if they drop the expansion completely.

Representative Ilhan Omar (D.Minn.), said Friday that we want hearing, vision, and dental to be covered. My greatest worry is that we have our five priorities, and we've always said that we would support a package with these five priorities. Things can get very complicated if you take away certain priorities.

The White House told lawmakers last weekend that the White House wanted to dramatically reduce those provisions in Democrats’ party-line social spending bill. Five sources close to the conversation said that the president now supports four weeks of paid family leave and medical leave for workers with lower incomes, which was originally proposed by the administration at $225 billion.

This is almost one-fifth the amount that the House approved earlier this year for paid leave: $494 billion. This is even lower than the $300 billion that the Senate has been pushing since summer.

One source stated that the benefits would be paid on an income-based basis and would end after three to four years. This is a problem for most paid leave advocates. They believe that the benefits' permanence is crucial to encourage employers and states to join the program.

Molly Day, executive Director of Paid Leave for America, stated that a temporary paid leave program was not sufficient. It is crucial that the final bill addresses the urgent needs of working families by providing a permanent federal framework.

The United States is the only rich nation that does not have a national policy for paid family leave. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 23 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leaves. Seventy-seven per cent have access to paid sick leaves.

One source close to the conversation said that the White House stated Friday morning that it was looking at removing paid leave from its package.

Payed leave advocates are furious at the White House's inability to push for the most basic version of the reform Biden campaigned on, especially as the U.S recovers from a health crisis that adversely affected women.

Dawn Huckelbridge, Paid Leave for All director, stated that it is unimaginable and unacceptable to me that there could be any risk of a paid holiday being cut. This is considering the ongoing pandemic and the women's jobs crisis as well as the birth rate issues and other overlapping crises that are deepening racial inequality. It is absurd to me that something Congress has defended and supported for this administration would not be a priority.

According to one source, the White House has mostly deferred responsibility for the pay cutbacks to Manchin. Manchin has not yet made public statements about whether or not the policy is important to him.

Vicki Shabo, a New America student who studies paid leave, stated that she wants to know if [Biden] is behind [paid leaves] when he's behind closed doors and with Sen. Manchin, among others, he's negotiating with.

Friday's request for comment was not answered by a spokesperson for Manchin.

Burgess Everett was a contributor to this report.