Senate Democrats have begun privately weighing a sprawling economic package as much as $6 trillion — including $3 trillion that is paid for — even as a bipartisan group of senators works to draw support for a much narrower infrastructure plan that would devote $579 billion in new money to fund physical public works projects.
The details of both plans remain in flux, as lawmakers work to maneuver some, if not all, of President Biden’s economic agenda around the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate and razor-thin margins in the House. For now, the divergent efforts are proceeding in parallel, with Republicans and Democrats pushing forward on their compromise proposal and Democrats preparing to use the fast-track budget process known as reconciliation to avoid a filibuster of their far larger plan and push it through over Republican opposition.
At a meeting on Wednesday convened by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, Democrats on the Budget Committee discussed taking unilateral action on a package as large as $6 trillion, with half of it paid for, should the bipartisan talks fail to produce a deal, according to four people familiar with the discussion. The details of the emerging discussions were reported earlier by Politico.
The Democrats also discussed potentially including measures to expand Medicare, including lowering the eligibility age to 60 and expanding benefits for all beneficiaries to cover dental, hearing and vision care, according to three of the people, who disclosed details on condition of anonymity because they are still in flux. Broadening Medicare has long been a priority of Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, the chairman of the Budget Committee.
“This is the moment that we have to start addressing issues that have been neglected for a very long time,” Mr. Sanders said before the meeting with Mr. Schumer, adding that Mr. Biden had “given us a very good framework with which to work.”
But while liberal Democrats have urged their leaders to abandon discussions with Republicans, moderate Democrats have been reluctant to give up on their hopes of a bipartisan agreement to fund roads, bridges, waterways, broadband and other physical projects.
Mr. Schumer said he would meet with the moderate Democrats on Thursday to discuss their progress, a day after the bipartisan group announced that it had drawn the support of a total of 21 senators for their tentative framework. While the group has not yet made the plan public, an initial outline circulating on Capitol Hill said it would include $110 billion in new funding for roads and bridges, $65 billion for broadband, $25 billion for airports and $55 billion for water infrastructure.
The draft also included a series of proposed ways to finance the plan, including public-private partnerships, repurposing unspent coronavirus relief funds and adjusting user fees for drivers. The White House has resisted indexing the gas tax to inflation and other user fees. It also proposed reducing what is known as the “tax gap” by giving the I.R.S. more resources to crack down on wealthy individuals and corporations that are not paying their taxes.
Ten moderate senators who spearheaded the talks — including Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah, both Republicans, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a Democrat — huddled with a broader bipartisan group on Wednesday. Soon after, the group joined five Democrats and six Republicans in professing support for “this bipartisan framework that provides an historic investment in our nation’s core infrastructure needs without raising taxes.”
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said top White House officials who met with the moderate group on Wednesday were encouraged by the details they shared. But the official said a draft of the proposal circulating on Capitol Hill did not reflect the proposal they had discussed.
“I know that my chief of staff thinks that there’s some room — there may be a means by which to get this done, and I know that Schumer and Nancy have moved forward on a reconciliation provision as well,” Mr. Biden told reporters, referring to Mr. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. “So I’m still hoping we can put together the two bookends here.”