Meet the college basketball player turned US senator who pitched a tax on billionaires like Elon Musk to fund Biden's economic agenda
The shot-clock is about to hit zero to pass President Joe Biden's economic agenda as the midterm elections draw near. But Sen.
Wyden, 72, chairs the Senate Finance Committee, a powerful panel with major sway over tax and health
The Oregon Democrat is confident he can lock down a holdout standing between the party's failure or victory: Sen.
Not even 2 1/2 minutes had passed (or the full length of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough") before Manchin walked past him and killed the bill all over again.
"It's dead," he said, re-emphasizing his opposition to the House bill as if to double-check it had no pulse.
Despite Manchin's dismissal, Wyden accepts he has a crucial but uphill battle to revive the Build Back Better plan in some form. He's near the center of the effort to pull the Democratic agenda from the shredder that Manchin threw it in. The midterms are approaching, and voters will likely judge Democrats on pledges to curb prescription drug costs and provide financial relief for families. But the evenly divided Senate has also tested the limits of Wyden's optimism in a chamber where every Democrat is a president with veto power.
"Rounding up 50 votes in the Senate is not for the faint-hearted," Wyden told Insider in two wide-ranging interviews. "Legislating is not a spectator sport. You've got to be hands-on."
Wyden has played a key role in shepherding several COVID-19 relief packages through Congress over the past two years. Those measures briefly expanded the safety net with direct payments and enhanced unemployment insurance to buoy struggling Americans. It demonstrated that the US can reduce poverty even in the middle of one of the worst economic crises since the Great Depression.
Now, Wyden's focus is on reviving a bill without any of the chaos and blown deadlines from last fall. The mercurial Manchin says he's open to cutting a deal, floating a summer deadline to pass legislation without committing to it. But Wyden and other Democrats haven't managed yet to sort through the wreckage of their domestic ambitions to assemble another bill that fits his narrow demands.
Some Democrats, particularly progressives, are souring on the odds he'll ever vote for anything. "Another week, another Manchin," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told Insider in early March. "The moment he's actually willing to do something, I'll be listening. But as long as he's talking about doing something, I don't really have much faith."
There are signs of a similar pessimism spilling into Democratic leadership. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranked Senate Democrat, openly conceded he had effectively thrown in the towel on the social and climate package. He laid the blame on Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another holdout.
Rounding up 50 votes in the Senate is not for the faint-hearted.Sen. Ron Wyden
Wyden acknowledged the numerous obstacles still separating Democrats from success on the centerpiece of their economic agenda.
"This is a uniquely challenging political time," Wyden said, noting war in Ukraine and supply-chain breakdowns at home contributing to the highest inflation in four decades. "I've never seen anything coming at us with this kind of velocity."
But Wyden seems determined not to call it quits just yet even with time running short.
"Ron Wyden is one of the biggest optimists I've ever encountered," Josh Kardon, Wyden's former longtime chief of staff, said in an interview. "He wakes up every morning believing that he can make a difference, even when all the evidence around him suggests that's not so. It's really quite extraordinary."
The brigade to put Build Back Better back on track
Since he sided with the GOP to sink most of Biden's economic agenda, Manchin has dropped hints about his priorities. "Just fix the tax code," he said in February. "We have to basically get our financial house in order," he said another time.
He sketched out a smaller bill focused on prescription-drug savings, stepping up taxes on the rich, climate-related spending, and deficit reduction. Yet he's grown skeptical of domestic initiatives he views as social programs like affordable childcare. He told Insider in February that he "wants nothing to do with that."
Wyden wants to meet him somewhere in the middle. Almost immediately after the talks went off the rails in December, the Oregon Democrat outlined a possible alternative centered on Obamacare subsidies to reduce the price of health insurance, cutting prescription drug costs, and clean-energy tax credits.
There has been occasional speculation that Manchin could switch parties. But Wyden thinks negotiations with the conservative Democrat have been in good faith. "We all get an election certificate to represent the people in our state," he said.
He's kept hitting the phones and dialed up fellow Democrats on reviving the party's broader agenda. Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Patty Murray of Washington, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Tom Carper of Delaware, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are a few members forming a Build Back Better brigade to put the bill back on track, Democratic aides and offices said.
"My wife in fact said, 'Is there any day when these discussions about these next efforts on health and climate don't take place?'" Wyden said in late February. "I said, 'They're every day.' I've been in several today already. And it's only 5 o'clock, and I got probably two more to go."
The Democratic two-step on chasing billionaire wealth
Among Wyden's top responsibilities is designing a litany of new taxes on the richest Americans and large corporations to finance the suite of climate, health, and childcare programs. But he's faced a familiar Democratic two-step on many of his ideas, including one of his biggest hopes: taxing billionaires.
Wyden pitched ambitious tax plans through 2021, such as a tax on carbon emissions and ending the step-up loophole. But fellow Democrats nixed them one-by-one. Then Sinema closed the door on rolling back swaths of the 2017 GOP tax cuts, depriving the party's plans of about $700 billion in new revenue from raising individual and corporate rates.
The last-minute scramble for cash led Wyden to dust off what's perhaps his most audacious plan that had been in the works for two years.
In the fall, he unveiled a billionaires' income tax to finance a large chunk of the package, targeting about 700 of the richest Americans who tend to park growing fortunes in tradable assets like stocks. The tax would apply to all the gains in value on those investments from the time they were first purchased.
But Wyden's plan didn't get a warm reception among his colleagues: Plenty of Democrats treaded cautiously around the largely untested measure, and a few powerful ones assailed it. Manchin branded it as divisive within hours, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi privately slammed it as a "public-relations stunt."
Wyden also made a rival out of a tech titan. Tesla CEO Elon Musk unleashed vulgar attacks on Wyden and other prominent Democrats as the party debated his billionaire-tax proposal. That measure would have slapped Musk with a $10 billion annual tax bill over the first five years.
He brushed off Musk. "I knew a long time ago that people say stuff online that can't exactly go into the old-fashioned community newspaper," Wyden said. "I just do my job. I've got my hands full trying to get stuff done that helps people."
Biden recently unveiled a billionaire tax proposal of his own, the first time the White House had drafted a plan specifically aimed at some of the richest people in America. Wyden was on board. But it was dead within 12 hours after Manchin came out against it.
To make up some of the lost revenue, Wyden is looking overseas to domestic companies paying little or no taxes if they're headquartered abroad.
"He's put together a very solid revenue package," Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, told Insider. "If and when we get something through, it'll have a lot of those international components."
'He's just situated impossibly'
Democrats can go only so far with needle-thin majorities. They don't have a vote to spare in the Senate after their surprise victories in the 2021 Georgia runoffs handed them control of the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade. Democrats control the 50-50 upper chamber with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.
The party also holds only a three-seat House majority. The near-unanimity needed to pass legislation means they're bound to settle for much less than the original aim to strengthen the American welfare state and invest enormous sums on healthcare, education, clean energy, and tax credits for low-income families.
"Wyden is trying to deal with the fact that the Senate is composed of 50 Republicans who will always say no," Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, said in an interview. "And can he bring along Sinema, Manchin, and a few other Democrats in a direction that advances the Democratic agenda?"
Rosenthal added: "He's just situated impossibly."
"Chairman Wyden knows how to reach a deal," said Kardon, now a partner at the lobbying firm Capitol Counsel. "He learned long ago not to allow the perfect be the enemy of the good."
The party's first big priority after the 2020 elections was muscling through a $1.9 trillion stimulus law to pump fresh money to Americans, hospitals, and state and local governments.
Wyden initially sought to restore the $600-per-week unemployment insurance established early in the pandemic. He calculated the original amount — meant to fully replace a worker's lost wages — on his iPhone in a meeting with then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in March 2020.
He settled for less, and Democrats nearly lost the whole package due to Manchin's 11th hour demands to cut federal unemployment benefits. "This is the best that can be done for people who are hurting now," Wyden said in an interview at the time.
"He's cared about this stuff," Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, an architect of the expanded child tax credit, said in an interview. "He's done it because he's passionate about trying to make the tax code fair for working people and for families."
No Republican in either chamber voted for the package, foreshadowing their unified opposition to the Build Back Better plan. The ongoing partisan warfare has prompted Wyden to grow more circumspect on the big bipartisan compromises he once sought.
"It's always a heavy lift. It's clearly much harder today," Wyden said.
But on restricting prescription-drug costs, there might be a brief window of opportunity. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a senior Republican on the Senate Finance panel, told Insider he believed a bipartisan agreement can be struck while Democrats still control Congress. He teamed up with Wyden on a drug bill in 2019. But it didn't go anywhere, partly because Mitch McConnell, then the Senate majority leader, sabotaged his efforts.
"We know what the situation is in the Congress of the United States when you put Republicans and Democrats together," Grassley said. "Even if Republicans control the Congress next time, there's going to be a lot of new members. I know what we got now, and we ought to move now."
'The value of having a gavel'
Congress today couldn't be more different from the one that a lanky, younger Wyden first stepped into.
A former college basketball player and the son of a journalist, Wyden was first elected to the House in 1980. He later became the first US senator to win an election conducted entirely by mail in 1996.
In the Senate, Wyden carved out a profile as a liberal unafraid to work with Republicans. Over the years, he's partnered with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska on campaign-finance reform, former Rep. Jason Chaffetz on GPS privacy, and former GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Bob Bennett of Utah on healthcare reform.
After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Democrats saw a once-in-a-generation opportunity to push through healthcare reform.
Wyden reintroduced legislation alongside Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to secure universal healthcare for Americans by expanding private insurance. Though the plan gathered dust, its guardrails preventing insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions ended up in what became the Affordable Care Act, the law that expanded health coverage to many Americans.
Wyden's chief of staff at the time thinks that era formed a valuable learning experience the senator still draws from.
Democrats overcame Republican opposition and internal splits to forge the ACA. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the last Democratic chair of the Senate Finance Committee before Wyden, tried courting a handful of GOP votes for Obama's healthcare plan only for it to sputter out. Then Wyden fought with Baucus to make the law more ambitious in scope. But Baucus won out, helped get the bill over the finish line and signed into law in March 2010.
"I think the senator above all learned the value of having a gavel," Kardon said of Wyden.
"As chairman, it remains to be seen what can be accomplished in this particular environment in a bipartisan fashion," Kardon said. "But those skills also have lent themselves to his dealings with the more conservative side of his caucus."
Democrats face enormous challenges hanging onto their narrow majorities this year — and Wyden is warning of blowback if the party fails to keep its campaign promises.
I've never seen anything coming at us with this kind of velocity.Ron Wyden
"My point has been, 'Senators, how many times have we promised that we were going to get serious about holding down the cost of medicine?" Wyden said in a Zoom interview, banging his fist on the desk. "How do you keep a straight face when you go home if you're not serious about doing this?"
Other Democrats are keenly aware of the high stakes, particularly if they end up losing the House, Senate, or both. "We're not giving up," Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said in a brief interview. "There's too many important things."
For now, Wyden is taking a lead role in bipartisan efforts to revoke trade relations with Russia, a step that essentially treats the country as an international pariah. He doesn't intend to sit around like a "potted plant" while Manchin makes up his mind about casting a vote on a smaller climate and energy bill.
"Every single day, he wakes up, reads about eight newspapers, starts quizzing his staff, and tries to figure out how to move the ball," Kardon said. "That's who the guy is."
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