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Politics: Key senators to watch on Democrats' social spending bill

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Key senators to watch on Democrats' social spending bill © Greg Nash/Julia Nikhinson/The Hill Key senators to watch on Democrats' social spending bill

All eyes will be on the Senate following the Thanksgiving break, as Democrats in the chamber seek to pass a massive social spending and climate package that is a key component of President Biden's economic agenda.

The House passed a version of the package shortly before Thanksgiving and the Senate is expected to take up the legislation after the holiday break. Lawmakers are hoping to get a bill to Biden's desk by the end of the year.

But Senate Democrats face challenges in passing the measure. They will need to make changes to the House bill in order to accommodate the priorities of both moderates and progressives. They may also have to make some changes to the bill in order to comply with the rules for the budget reconciliation process, which Democrats are using to prevent a Republican filibuster.

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Additionally, Senate Democrats will have to withstand criticisms from Republicans who are seeking to sink the bill.

Democrats have no room for error. In order for the bill to pass the Senate, every member of the Democratic caucus will need to vote for it, and Vice President Harris will need to cast a tie-breaking vote.

Here are five key senators to watch in the debate on the social-spending bill.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

As majority leader, Schumer is responsible for shepherding the social-spending bill through the chamber and holding his caucus together.

Democrats have been holding meetings with the Senate parliamentarian to discuss whether various provisions comply with the budget-reconciliation rules. Schumer has said he intends for the Senate to take up the legislation once that work is completed.

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"As soon as the necessary technical and procedural work with the Senate Parliamentarian has been completed, the Senate will take up this legislation," Schumer said in a statement following House passage. "We will act as quickly as possible to get this bill to President Biden's desk and deliver help for middle-class families."

Schumer will have to deftly navigate the competing desires of progressives and moderates in his caucus. He will also need to juggle the spending bill with other legislative agenda items, such as the annual defense policy bill, legislation to prevent a government shutdown and legislation to raise the debt ceiling.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)

Manchin, a prominent centrist, has been a key player in negotiations over the legislation and has already signaled that he has concerns with portions of the House bill.

The House bill included four weeks of paid family leave despite the fact that Manchin has expressed resistance to including that item in the spending package. That provision could end up being removed or altered in the Senate in order to get Manchin on board with the legislation.

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Additionally, Manchin could seek changes to some of the climate provisions in the package. He has objected to a provision that would give additional tax breaks for electric vehicles made by U.S. union workers.

Manchin may also influence the timing of when the Senate takes up a social-spending package.

The West Virginia Democrat recently told reporters that he's undecided on whether he'll help start debate on the bill. Such a vote is unlikely to occur unless Manchin says he will support it, because every Democrat's vote will be needed in order for it to be successful.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.)

Like Manchin, Sinema is a moderate whose vote will be necessary to secure passage of the bill in the Senate.

Sinema has already played a key role in shaping the package. The House bill doesn't include increases in individual and corporate tax rates because of Sinema's objections to those ideas. The Arizona Democrat also was involved in the development of the scaled-back provision on prescription drugs in the House bill.

But Sinema has yet to endorse the spending package and may still seek additional changes to the measure.

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In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Sinema pointed out that there are differences between the House bill and a White House framework for the spending package released in late October. However, she didn't provide details about any changes she wanted to make to the House bill.

"So, that's not the agreement the president put out in his framework several weeks ago," Sinema told the Post. "While I'm not going to comment on what's happening in the House at this moment, I can just refer you back to the comments I made when the president put out his framework. ... I'm looking forward to working with him to get this done."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders, a prominent progressive and chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said after the bill passed the House that he wants the Senate to "strengthen" the measure in areas including tax increases on the wealthy, prescription drugs, Medicare expansion and climate.

"The Senate has an opportunity to make this a truly historic piece of legislation," Sanders said in a statement. "We will listen to the demands of the American people and strengthen the Build Back Better Act."

The House bill would create a hearing benefit under Medicare, and Sanders wants the package to include dental and vision benefits under Medicare as well. However, Sanders could face an uphill battle getting this priority in the measure because of the cost of establishing the vision and dental benefits.

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Sanders is also working with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) on an alternative to the House provision on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction.

The House bill would raise the cap on the deduction from $10,000 to $80,000, but Sanders has criticized that provision as too beneficial to the wealthy. Instead, Sanders and Menendez are developing a proposal under which the full deduction would be restored for households making under an amount between $400,000 and $550,000, and a $10,000 cap would apply only to households above that level.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

McConnell will play a leading role in Republicans' efforts to attack the spending bill.

Republicans are uniformly expected to oppose the bill, arguing that the measure amounts to wasteful spending. McConnell and other GOP lawmakers are pressing Democrats to drop their plans to pass the bill, and in particular are seeking to put pressure on centrists such as Manchin and Sinema.

"Now only a few Senate Democrats can protect American families from these radical and painful policies," McConnell said in a statement following the House vote. "It is up to them to kill this bill."

McConnell is also expected to play a role in Republicans' strategy when it comes to forcing Democrats to take tough votes on amendments to the spending package. While several GOP senators are expected to be involved in the effort, McConnell is ultimately responsible.

Under the budget-reconciliation process that Democrats are using to pass the bill, Republicans will be able to put to a vote an unlimited number of amendments during a process known as vote-a-rama. Republicans are hoping they can get centrist Democrats to back some of their amendments, or at a minimum use some of the amendment votes against Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.

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