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Democrats say there is new momentum for a budget package

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

What happens when you wrap what seems like a president's entire agenda into just one bill in Congress? Well, we now know the answer is frustration, though we do not know yet if that is the final answer. Democrats are so focused on a budget measure because it is likely the only other substantive bill that they can pass before the end of the year against Republican opposition. So they've been negotiating among themselves about how much to spend on climate change, health care, child care, college tuition and even more.

NPR's Deirdre Walsh joins us with the latest from Capitol Hill. Good morning, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

DETROW: We have been following this and talking about this for months. And often there is not much new to say. But that is not the case this morning. What's the latest?

WALSH: There's really a lot of movement. Democrats I talked to last night believe there's new momentum. They're actually talking about the policies, not just the price tag.

Here's California Democrat Ro Khanna. He's a member of the Progressive Caucus who met with Biden yesterday.

RO KHANNA: I felt that we're closer to a deal than I ever, ever felt before. I felt the president is engaged in the details of the negotiation in a way that he hasn't been before.

WALSH: Democrats say the framework that's emerging is one that still keeps the bulk of the policy priorities the Democrats have been talking about - things you mentioned, like things like paid family leave, universal pre-K, expanding Medicare, elder care programs. But now that the package is going to be significantly smaller than the 3.5 trillion they originally said - they're now talking about $2 trillion - these programs are going to be paid for for shorter periods of time. For example, they're discussing extending the child tax credit for just one year.

DETROW: Got it. What about climate change, though? You know, so many Democrats see this as the last window to address an increasingly existential problem.

WALSH: That's been a big topic of discussion. And the centerpiece of Biden's proposal, which creates this program with incentives and fees to get utilities to switch to clean energy, is not expected to be in the deal. Instead, Democrats are exploring new ways to meet those targets that he's set to reduce emissions. But it's unclear what they're going to be. Another item that's not expected to be in the final deal is the president's proposal for two years of free community college.

DETROW: It's pretty surprising that Ro Khanna said there that president, who has spent so long on Capitol Hill, is only now engaged in the details of the negotiation. What has changed from the White House perspective?

WALSH: He is. I mean, they're really coming down to the details. And as we've talked about on this program before, it really depends on what key Senate moderates - West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema - are going to accept. Democrats are saying that they both have their own parking spots at the White House. And Biden is really getting into the specific policies, trying to thread the needle to get common ground to see if they can reach a deal between moderates, like Manchin and Sinema, and progressives, who are now accepting a much smaller package than they originally talked about.

DETROW: We've got about 30 seconds left. Same question we've asked so many times before, but in a different context here - is the latest deadline that lawmakers have set realistic?

WALSH: It's hard to see that happening. I mean, the new goal they're trying to reach is to get a framework for this scaled-down domestic spending bill by the end of this week. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders is really frustrated with the pace of negotiations and these two holdouts, the moderates that we talked about. He's saying it's time to fish or cut bait. But other Democrats say they still want a deal on this framework before the president and a delegation of congressional Democrats head to a climate summit at the end of this month. It's still going to be a really heavy lift, Scott.

DETROW: Deirdre Walsh, she will keep us posted on the latest. Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.