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2 Senate Democrats are holding up Biden's spending package — with conflicting demands

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Forty-eight out of 50 Democratic senators are on board with President Biden's multitrillion-dollar domestic agenda. That includes health care, child care, climate and education programs. The two not on board - West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. NPR's Deirdre Walsh covers Congress, and she has more on who these senators are and what they want.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: The two moderate senators have said for months they oppose the size and scope of the proposed social spending package. To pass it, Democrats are using a process that requires all 50 Democrats to be on board to get around a Republican filibuster. If you ask Manchin and Sinema's colleagues how to get there, they say the same thing - ask them.

BEN RAY LUJAN: I think that any questions for Senators Manchin or Senator Sinema should be directed to them directly.

TIM KAINE: Rather than comment on where they are, I think you should ask them directly.

WALSH: That was Senators Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and Tim Kaine of Virginia. Biden says his focus is on Manchin and Sinema. He and his senior aides have had sit-downs with the two holdouts multiple times.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I've been able to close the deal in 99% of my party (laughter). Two - two people. It's still under way.

WALSH: Many have put these two centrist Democrats in the same category, but their own policy priorities could put them at odds. Manchin has listed some of his parameters, including his price tag.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE MANCHIN: My number has been 1.5. I've been very clear, and I think you all have gotten an outline of how I got to 1.5.

WALSH: He wants to roll back the 2017 Trump tax cuts to make the wealthy pay higher taxes. He also agrees with progressives that the government should be able to negotiate directly with drug companies on the prices of prescription drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANCHIN: It makes no sense at all that we don't go out and negotiate. The VA does a tremendous job. Medicaid does it. Why doesn't Medicare?

WALSH: But Manchin wants to change one policy Democrats see as critical - sending monthly checks to parents to help pay for child care. He wants to target those checks to working families below certain income levels. As for Senator Sinema, it's less clear what her red lines are, which is puzzling to Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: Senator Sinema's position has been that she doesn't, quote, unquote, "negotiate publicly." I don't know what that means.

WALSH: Sinema rarely engages with the press in the Capitol's hallways. When NPR tried to ask her a question, her staff shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is it true, Senator Sinema, that...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Senator Sinema is about to have a meeting, so we have to give her some privacy.

WALSH: Sinema has told colleagues that unlike Manchin, she opposes a key provision that would get 700 billion in savings from drug companies. Climate change is another area where Manchin and Sinema appear to not be on the same page. Sinema has been signaling she supports new programs to promote clean energy and penalize businesses who fail to meet new standards. But Manchin, who represents a coal-producing state, argues energy companies are already making the transition to greener technologies and don't need tax credits. And he says fossil fuels need to be part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy. Sanders is fed up with the focus on these two senators. He says they should be the ones compromising since polls show Biden's agenda is popular and the rest of the caucus backs it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: It's simply not fair, not right that one or two people say my way or the highway.

WALSH: But the reality is these two moderates likely hold the key to the final shape of what Democrats say could be the most significant package since the New Deal, or its failure, sending the party reeling ahead of the 2022 midterms. Deirdre Walsh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.