By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Divisions between progressives and moderates are bedeviling U.S. Democrats as they struggle to advance President Joe Biden's agenda, with the fate of the $3.5 trillion social spending legislation they hope to pass hanging in the balance.
House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday the proposed price tag could be lowered, depending on what Democrats in the Senate, including moderate Senator Joe Manchin, can support.
"If the Senate can't do 3.5, we've got to see what they can do," Hoyer said.
Progressive Democrats in the House voiced defiance at that prospect.
"I will not vote for a reconciliation package lower than 3.5. trillion," Representative Jamaal Bowman declared outside the Capitol.
Bowman said many other House lawmakers agreed with him. "We just had a meeting about this recently, so I could say at least 40."
The comments illustrated the difficult path Democrats face in passing the legislation embracing Biden's sweeping agenda with razor-thin majorities and staunch Republican opposition.
Democrats cannot afford to lose more than three votes in the House, and none in the Senate, if they are to pass the package of childcare, education and green energy measures in the face of Republican resistance.
The picture grew more complicated this week as Republicans reasserted their vow not to help Democrats raise the federal government's debt limit before a mid-October deadline.
That means Democrats may need to steer the debt limit bill through Congress without Republican support, posing potentially dire risks for the nation's economy if they fail.
Moderates like Manchin, who represents heavily Republican West Virginia, say they will not vote for $3.5 trillion in social spending. He has publicly pressed for a total of $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion. This is anathema to progressives. Another House progressive, Representative Rashida Tlaib, said she was "absolutely" worried about the social spending package being cut back too much.
"I have the third poorest congressional district in the country and I think people don't realize my folks have been waiting for this kind of bold investment," she said on Monday evening.
"We have schools with no clean drinking water - contaminated with lead. We have many frontline communities right now that are begging us to do something about climate," said Tlaib, whose district includes part of Detroit.
Other progressive Democrats, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have suggested that scaling back the plan could ultimately reach a point for them where something is worse than nothing at all.
Ocasio-Cortez said a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that has passed the Senate and is pending in the House is a "perfect example," because it was not only inadequate on the spending front, but its climate provisions in her view would actually be harmful.
"There is absolutely a level where it's not just - something is not better than nothing, but something can actually do more harm," Ocasio-Cortez told reporters. "That's why we are holding firm on our line." (Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)