WASHINGTON — Cleaner sources of energy, harvested by machinery made in the United States. Early childhood education subsidized by the federal government. Cheaper hearing aids and expanded health care coverage. A million units of affordable housing.
Those are just some of the “truly consequential” changes Americans will see if President Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better agenda survives the meat grinder of Capitol Hill, he said on Thursday.
“We will own the future,” Biden said, reprising the theme of international competition that he has frequently deployed. That competition, he has said, is not only with China but also with authoritarian regimes like Russia.
Congress is also considering a $1.2 trillion traditional infrastructure package meant to address badly needed road repairs and other long-standing concerns, like clean drinking water and access to high-speed internet. That bill easily passed the Senate over the summer with 19 Republican votes but has stalled in the House due to progressives’ insistence that a budget framework be agreed to first.
Thursday afternoon saw the release of the 1,684-page Build Back Better bill, signaling movement — however halting — toward a vote. “For those who said, ‘I want to see text,’ the text is there for you to review, for you to complain about, for you to add to or subtract from,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference. “Whatever it is and we’ll see what consensus emerges from that, but we’re really very much on a path.”
Yet progressives on Capitol Hill expressed dismay at the removal of priorities they had hoped would make it into the final Build Back Better bill. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., for example, said it was “disappointing” to see paid family leave fall out of the package. (Pelosi said at her press conference that she was “still fighting for paid leave.”)
The slimming down comes courtesy of moderates in the Democratic caucus, particularly Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who balked at the price tag of the original $3.5 trillion budget proposal and demanded cuts to various programs within it. Their resistance has forced Democrats to make difficult choices about priorities like lowering drug prices, another casualty of recent negotiations, and free community college, which was also left out.
With margins in both the House and Senate exceptionally narrow, the White House has to be attuned to any grievance significant enough to scuttle the complex dealmaking intended to ensure the passage of both the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the $1.75 trillion domestic agenda.
Such grievances remain legion. “I’ve been clear from the beginning: no SALT, no deal,” tweeted Rep. Mikie Sherrill, referring to the state and local tax deductions beloved by many residents of high-tax states like New Jersey, which she represents. Those deductions were capped by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. At the present, Democratic leaders are reportedly working on a way to lift the cap.
The intensity of ongoing negotiations reflects the uncertainty of the moment and the precariousness of the coalition Biden has tried to build.
“Looks like the votes just aren’t there for Build Back Better,” a staffer for a progressive member of the House told Yahoo News on Thursday afternoon. That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., leader of the progressive caucus in the House. In trying to ensure that liberals’ priorities remain at the fore, she has sometimes frustrated a White House that has routinely argued that something is better than nothing.
In keeping with that argument, the president outlined on Thursday what he said were the consequences of failure. “We risk losing our edge as a nation,” he warned, speaking as Vice President Kamala Harris stood behind him. Shortly after his address, Biden boarded the presidential helicopter, Marine One, en route to Joint Base Andrews. He will travel from there first to Rome, where he will meet with Pope Francis and attend a meeting of the 20 most significant economic powers in the world. Then he heads to Glasgow, Scotland, for an international climate change summit.
Although earlier hopes to have the spending plan finalized ahead of his departure proved unrealistic, Biden left Washington on Thursday afternoon optimistic that despite progressive frustrations, a deal was in the works to enact what would be the most massive federal spending program since the Great Society programs of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Yet House Democratic leaders officially canceled the plan to vote on the infrastructure bill on Thursday, the latest blow to the party's, and the president's, ambitious plans, ABC News first reported.
Despite the delay, the White House continues to believe that even if progressives lament what could have been if not for the cuts that moderates successfully forced, they will not walk away from an opportunity they are unlikely to see again, especially if Republicans retake either chamber of Congress next year.
“This is a fundamental game changer for families — and our economy,” the president said in White House remarks meant both for a public that remains unclear about the scope of the enormous spending bill and a Congress divided along partisan lines about whether to allow for such spending. (Biden has said that revenue would be raised with higher taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.)
Alluding to the reporters gathered before him in the White House on Thursday, the president noted that many of them were working mothers — and that he had been a working father, raising two boys, after his first wife and infant daughter were killed in a 1972 car accident. Most of the jobs in Build Back Better would be in fields like early childhood education and home health care, which are dominated by women. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, conversely, is estimated to heavily favor male-dominated fields like construction.
“We are once again going to be the innovators,” Biden said, envisioning how wind turbines and solar panels would be made in the United States, not rival nations like China.
Whether all that is enough to satisfy progressives while keeping centrists from fleeing will become apparent in the coming days. If progressives decide to withhold support for the infrastructure bill, Senate moderates would likely retaliate by sinking Build Back Better, thus leading to a collapse of Biden’s entire domestic spending agenda.
“No one got everything they wanted,” Biden said back at the White House, as negotiations furiously continued on Capitol Hill. The president will watch those negotiations from Europe.
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