Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, spoke with NPR about how Democrats plan to secure all 50 member votes needed to pass President Biden's $2.2 trillion social spending bill.



The Build Back Better bill that narrowly cleared the House of Representatives yesterday calls for half a trillion dollars for green energy, hundreds of billions more for free preschool, housing, hearing aids for Medicare patients and other programs. It now heads to the Senate, where it can be expected to be pared down.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a senior senator from Illinois, comes back to our program. Welcome back to WEEKEND EDITION, Senator Durbin.

DICK DURBIN: Hi, Scott. How you doing?

SIMON: Fine. Thank you, sir.

The bill can pass the Senate only if all 50 members of the Democratic caucus support it. Two Democrats notably - Joe Manchin, West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona - don't support it so far. What do you have to do to get those last two votes without losing any of the others you already have?

DURBIN: Well, I'm hopeful because we spent weeks literally negotiating with both of them. They have made their mark on this bill, the one that passed the House and what is likely to pass the Senate. And what I've said to my friend Joe Manchin over and over is, Joe, you've made your mark on this bill probably more than any single senator now. Close the deal. Show us that there's enough good in this bill that you can stand up and support it. I hope he will, and Kyrsten as well.

SIMON: One of the most potentially expensive parts of the bill isn't a social program. It's called the SALT deduction, and that raises the amount of state and local taxes people can deduct on their federal taxes. Now, let me explain it's a proposal that is perhaps especially popular in high-tax states, like New York, California, perhaps our own beloved Illinois, and states that also have a habit of voting democratic. Is it fair to taxpayers in lower-tax states, like, say, West Virginia and Arizona?

DURBIN: Well, what we start with is the basic principle, should I, as a taxpayer in America, pay a tax on a tax? And that is what's happening here. We gave the state and local deduction because taxpayers were already paying those taxes. And we said we won't include that in your income. You shouldn't pay tax on a tax. And that's the premise.

We can, you know, realistically and honestly discuss whether or not there should be exemptions at high income levels. But I think the fundamental is correct. If a state or locality steps up and the people say, we're going to accept responsibility on our own, locally, at home to do things, I think the federal government should recognize that effort by taxpaying Americans.

SIMON: The House version also has an immigration provision that would let more than half of undocumented immigrants in the United States apply for work permits. The Senate parliamentarian has previously said essentially that that type of legislation just doesn't belong in a spending bill. You going to keep it? Is it up for negotiation?

DURBIN: Well, I can tell you this. I support it. I wish we had taken an earlier approach which suggested a pathway to citizenship. Most Americans agree with that. As long as these undocumented - and there are 11 million, at least, in our country - undocumented people are working and paying their fair share of taxes, most believe that over a period of time, they should (ph) be given special treatment, they ought to still be given an opportunity. We couldn't win that with the Senate parliamentarian.

And now comes this approach. And what it basically says - three things. If you apply and if you're approved, no criminal background or anything of that nature, you can get a five-year permission to work legally in the United States. You will not be deported if you're in that status, and you can travel outside the United States and return without penalty. Then you have to renew it in five years, and the same questions asked, same fees filed. I think that's a reasonable approach. Now, the question is, does the Senate parliamentarian agree? We'll find out when we return next week or the week after.

SIMON: I mean, why not just propose it as separate legislation and let senators be able to vote on it without having to worry about halting a massive spending bill?

DURBIN: May I remind you of the dreaded word, the filibuster? I introduced the DREAM Act 20 years ago, a pathway to citizenship for kids brought here when they were infants and toddlers and little kids. I've tried, tried and tried five different times, and filibusters stopped me in the Senate. When you try to do this separately, you run into the Senate rules.

SIMON: In the 30 seconds we have left, Senator Durbin, let me ask you the timeline for the Build Back Better bill getting through the Senate and then, of course, back to the House. What do you figure, this time next week?

DURBIN: Well, next week we'll be off for Thanksgiving.

SIMON: Senator, I'm kidding.


DURBIN: But I will tell you, by the end of the year, Chuck Schumer and I discussed with our caucus - we put a lot of work and a lot of time in this. And hats off to Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats for what they achieved. Now it's our turn. And we've got to buckle down. We have several things that are critical - military authorization, debt ceiling, continuing resolution. It's going to be a busy December, but we've got to get the job done. This has been a great week in Washington for America, with the president signing the infrastructure bill on Monday, with the House passing the bill yesterday. Let's get it done.

SIMON: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, thanks so much.

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