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Rep. Ro Khanna Slams Conservative Democrats for Holding Back Build Back Better Plan

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U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said over the weekend that Democrats are close to reaching a deal on a pair of major budget bills that form the backbone of President Biden’s domestic agenda. Progressives in Congress have spent months defending provisions such as Medicare benefits, paid family leave and free community college, but conservative Democrats such as Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have slashed them from the budget. Congressmember Ro Khanna draws a hard line on items such as climate provisions, as per President Joe Biden’s wishes ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference “to show American leadership” and aim for a “50% reduction by 2030” on greenhouse gas pollution.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

After months of negotiations, Democrats are facing a pivotal week that could decide the future of President Biden’s domestic agenda. Biden met with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer at Biden’s Delaware home Sunday in an attempt to advance the stalled reconciliation package that Manchin and fellow conservative Democrat Kyrsten Sinema have been obstructing. The proposed price tag on the Build Back Better Act, which would vastly expand the social safety net and combat the climate crisis, has already been slashed in half to $1.75 trillion, though the final cost is still being negotiated. Manchin reportedly agreed to some proposals on new taxes for corporations and billionaires, though no deal was announced following the meeting. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on CNN Sunday Democrats are close to finalizing the measure and the House is expected to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill later this week.

SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: We have 90% of the bill agreed to and written. We just have some of the last decisions to be made. It is less than we had — was projected to begin with, but it’s still bigger than anything we have ever done in terms of addressing the needs of America’s working families.

AMY GOODMAN: Progressive Democrats have worked to defend key provisions in Biden’s infrastructure bill, like guaranteed paid family leave, which will reportedly be dropped from the proposal, or cut from 12 weeks to just four weeks. On Saturday, Senator Bernie Sanders pushed back on reporting about cuts to an expansion of Medicare benefits, tweeting, “The expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision is supported by 84% of the public and is one of the most important provisions in Build Back Better. It’s what the American people want and, after waiting over 50 years, what they are going to get.” Sanders added, “It’s not coming out.”

For more on what could be final negotiations, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Congressmember Ro Khanna of California.

Congressmember Khanna, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s a lot of numbers being thrown around, but let’s talk about the specific measures — for example, the last one, adding the vision, hearing — vision and hearing and dental care to Medicare. Explain what exactly is being proposed and what are the cuts here.

REP. RO KHANNA: Amy, Senator Sanders is absolutely right. This is actually the most popular part of the Build Back Better agenda. That’s not an opinion; it’s a fact, if you look at the polling. And it’s not coming out. We will push very hard to make sure it stays in. It’s quite clear what it is. I mean, seniors right now have to pay thousands of dollars to get dental care. They can’t afford to get hearing aids, and that comes out of pocket. They can’t afford often the vision, eyeglasses or things that they need to take care of their eyes. None of that is covered. And under Senator Sanders’s plan, it would be covered. Now, the details are being negotiated, but I know that this is a top priority for the senator, and it’s a top priority for House progressives.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s talk about paid family leave, right now not guaranteed at all. The proposal was for 12 weeks. It’s now apparently been cut to four weeks, but could be actually nothing. Who is arguing that a person who gives birth should be back at work within a few weeks, if not the next day?

REP. RO KHANNA: I don’t know. Obviously someone who doesn’t know anyone who’s given birth. I mean, it’s absurd to have it at four weeks. I mean, even, Amy, as you know, the Family Medical Leave Act allows six weeks. Now, that’s unpaid, but even that act, which passed under the Clinton years, allows for six weeks. So you would think, at minimum, we would cover six weeks. This is an area, again, where progressives are pushing very hard. We’re saying do the 12 weeks, do what every other wealthy democracy and wealthy nation does, every other OECD country does. If you want to compromise on the number of years of the program, fine, we can compromise on that, but have a proper precedent in what should be paid parental leave, paid family leave.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the climate aspects of this bill? I know you’re going to be holding congressional hearings. President Biden says he wants these bills signed off on before he leaves for Glasgow, the U.N. climate summit that’s taking place there next week.

REP. RO KHANNA: We need to do this, in my view, before the president goes to Glasgow, to give him something to show American leadership. But if we’re going to remove the climate energy program, that is the robust program of mandates and incentives to get us to 50% reduction by 2030 — that’s the president’s goal — if we’re going to remove that, we have to have an alternative to hit the president’s goal. That is ongoing, that negotiation. Several ideas have been proposed: block grants to states, penalties for industrial polluters. So we have to look at what the package is. I know, though, that the Progressive Caucus has made it very, very clear — Jared Huffman, in particular, has been a great leader on this — in saying we have to have the president’s 50% targets met.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about how these negotiations are going. You have Senator Manchin criticizing President [sic] Sanders’ vision of America as an “entitlement society.” But, in fact, is this really an ideological difference, the West Virginia senator making a fortune himself, founding coal companies in the ’80s, his money now in a blind trust — his brothers and his son are all involved in that — the largest recipient of oil, coal and gas money of the U.S. Senate? Is this purely about his own enrichment that he is objecting to renewable energy, for example?

REP. RO KHANNA: I wouldn’t characterize it in those terms, but I would say that it’s a philosophical debate. I mean, when you look at — I just look at my own life, and what did America give me? I got to go to a good public school. I never had to worry about healthcare because my father had a middle-class job, but it had healthcare. I got to see a dentist, because we had dental insurance. I got nutritious meals. I had access, ultimately, to a great education and was able to take out loans for that. I paid them off, but I was fortunate.

But my question, I guess, to people is — it doesn’t seem that that’s asking a lot. I don’t think I’m a product of an entitlement society. I think I had basic education, health and nutrition, that allowed me then to work and to make a contribution. And all Senator Sanders, all Build Back Better is saying is the opportunities that I had or so many in America have had should be available to all. That, to me, is a philosophical debate we’re still having in this country. We’re very close to getting it done, but we need to continue to make the case that investments in education and healthcare support productivity, support work and aren’t creating some welfare state, as has been characterized.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is going to happen this week? The Progressive Caucus, the largest congressional caucus, has said they will not support passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill — though they’re not against that bill — unless at the same time the reconciliation bill is voted on. Do you actually see that happening this week? Enormous pressure on the Congressional Progressive Caucus; on the other hand, they’re the ones that are putting the most pressure on keeping as much of the Build Back Better plan as possible.

REP. RO KHANNA: We will not vote for the bipartisan bill, which has almost zero climate provisions, unless there is an agreed-upon deal on the reconciliation bill. Now, there has to be sufficient specificity. There has to be a sufficient understanding that it’s robust on climate, that Senator Sanders and the provisions he’s been fighting for are in there. And I suppose if all 50 senators, including Senator Sanders and Senator Warren, are convinced that it will pass and are convinced that it’s robust and have said that they will vote for it, of course that will influence the progressive view, and the progressives then may say, “OK, we have a deal.” But it’s important to realize that it’s not just Manchin and Sinema. There is going to have to be the sign-off of Senator Sanders, Senator Warren and other progressives in the Senate for the Progressive Caucus to feel assured that there is a deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the hearing that you’re going to hold, the CEOs of six major fossil fuel companies and trade associations testifying this month, including ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell Oil, the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? What do you want to know from them about their role in spreading climate disinformation? And what do you think will be accomplished by your hearing?

REP. RO KHANNA: It’s a historic hearing, Amy. It’s the first time these oil executives have had to come before Congress to answer for climate disinformation. The hearing is quite simple. It’s first: Why did you lie to the American people, and why do you continue to be deceptive about talking about all the challenges that climate change brings, that the climate crisis brings, but not taking action to address it? And we want to first expose that, expose the story of past misrepresentation and current, ongoing deception. And then we need a commitment from them to stop, to stop all the misinformation, because you can’t solve the crisis if you’re going have lobbyists and public relations firms and think tanks systematically putting out misinformation about climate.

AMY GOODMAN: You have reserved most of your animus on the Sinema-Manchin blockade of this bill for Senator Sinema of Arizona. Can you talk about your concerns about her and why you’re most critical?

REP. RO KHANNA: I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s animus. It’s just more bewilderment. And I guess my concern is the lack of transparency. You know, I disagree on a lot of things with Senator Manchin, but people have kind of had a sense of where he stands, and then you work and you negotiate. Senator Sinema, you know, doesn’t ever do public interviews, doesn’t talk to colleagues, doesn’t talk to constituents, and so is operating in this sense where she just talks to the White House, and that has created a black box on what she wants, which has made it very, very difficult for the process to take place. And that is why I’ve had sort of the most frustration and criticism of her. It’s not personal in any way. It’s just: Why is she not being more transparent?

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about how the bill was going to be funded and the issue of increasing taxes on corporations and billionaires and millionaires and those of the wealthiest classes in this country. You have 55 corporations, at least, that are paying zero taxes. What are you demanding? And what is Senator Sinema, who in the past has supported increasing taxes, now done a 180 on?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, in the past, she voted against the Trump tax cuts. The Build Back Better bill would not even raise the tax rates back to where they were prior to the Trump tax cuts. They would just marginally raise the corporate tax rates and the taxes on the wealthy. And Senator Sinema is opposed to that.

But I understand that Senator Warren is prevailing on this idea of a wealth tax, which I support. And if we’re going to have a wealth tax on the billionaires, that’s a good first step. And I understand that she’s also managed to prevail on this view that every corporation should pay tax — I mean, it sounds silly to even say it, but right now you have over 50 companies, many very wealthy companies, that pay zero tax — and I support that.

So, if we can get these provisions of a wealth tax — which, frankly, is even more progressive, in my view, than raising corporate tax rates — and a corporate minimum tax, and if that gets to the revenue we need, I’m open to that approach. And then we still, in my view, need to raise the corporate tax rates and raise the tax rates on the wealthy, and maybe we could do that in a subsequent bill. It’s bewildering to me why Senator Sinema is opposed to that. But I am for these other alternatives that are being floated.

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