More than a year after President Joe Biden clinched the White House on a pledge to “build back better,” House Democrats are trying to to deliver on that promise, voting to approve more than $2 trillion in spending initiatives that would overhaul federal health care, education, climate, immigration and tax laws.
The measure adopted Friday amounts to a dramatic re-envisioning of the role of government in Americans’ daily lives. It sets aside in some cases historic sums to aid workers, families and businesses, seeking to rewire the very fabric of an economy still recovering from the financial devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
In bearing the name of the president’s 2020 campaign slogan, the successful 220-213 House vote on the Build Back Better Act marks the second legislative milestone for Democrats this month. It comes about two weeks after they joined with Republicans to finalize a separate, sweeping bill to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections, delivering long-sought infrastructure investments that Biden signed into law Monday.
But the more than $2 trillion bill, the final component in Biden’s broader economic agenda, still must survive an even tougher political slog in the days ahead. The House vote sends the tax-and-spending package next to the Senate, where moderates including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., long have harbored skepticism about its price tag and policy scope—and could further seek to pare back its provisions.
Republicans, meanwhile, only have hardened in united opposition to the bill. The spirit of bipartisanship that the two parties celebrated only four days ago had faded completely by Thursday, when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., took to the chamber floor and held the debate hostage overnight, blasting the $2 trillion package in comments that at times misrepresented its contents.
The speech essentially served as a filibuster, allowing McCarthy for more than eight hours to air a slew of unrelated grievances at his political foes. Democrats openly jeered at him, muttering “no” at his claims. At times they laughed at his speech, and they eventually moved to delay their pivotal vote until Friday morning, a temporary setback that instead served to illustrate the widening gulf between the two parties.
The House-passed bill would pave the way for the greatest expansion of federal child care assistance in history, seeking to fund free, universal prekindergarten for all American children aged three and four. Targeting health care, the measure offers new Medicare benefits covering hearing services and empowers the government for the first time to negotiate some prescription drug prices, aiming to lower the costs that seniors pay for lifesaving medicines such as insulin.
The bill would also set aside more than $550 billion to combat climate change, promote greener energy and provide new perks for Americans who buy electric vehicles. And it would approve additional funding to rethink the immigration system, provide hungry Americans with access to food, and promote affordable new housing nationwide.
Democrats targeted a further slate of fresh aid toward families, making a dramatic expansion in the so-called “safety net” that aids those in greatest need. The legislation would extend new, expanded child tax credits for another year, for example, allowing Americans to continue receiving monthly payments as they have since Congress adopted the American Rescue Plan earlier this year. And Democrats coupled new child care assistance with the first-ever program that would provide paid family and medical leave to millions of Americans who do not have it through their current jobs.
To pay for the package, which parcels out its aid over 10 years, Democrats relied on a mix of measures that largely target wealthy Americans and profitable corporations. The bill imposes a new surtax on millionaires, for example, along with new minimums on companies that under current law pay nothing in income tax to the government—even in years when those firms profit handsomely. Federal estimates show these and other financing measures cover the costs of the spending bill in full.
“Members of Congress have stood exactly where we stand to pass legislation of extraordinary consequences in our nation’s history and for our nation’s future,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a speech shortly before the vote. “With the passage of the Build Back Better Act, we, this Democratic Congress, are taking our place in the long and honorable heritage of our democracy with legislation that will be the pillar of health and financial security in America.”
But the roughly $2 trillion bill still stops short of the fuller array of federal programs that some Democrats, including Biden, initially had sought. Some of its aid initiatives are temporary; others aren’t set to take effect for years. The cuts and omissions reflect the tense, tenuous process by which Democrats forged the package and overcame their own internal divides over the future of federal spending.
In the end, though, Democrats muscled through their myriad disagreements to adopt a package they have repeatedly likened to the transformational endeavors of generations past, including the New Deal and Great Society programs implemented in the penumbra of the Great Depression. Only one party lawmaker, Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, joined Republicans in opposing it.
Americans are unhappy with the economy but still spending big.
“Virtually every poll on this piece of legislation has shown overwhelming support for each of the elements we are proposing,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., the chairman of the chamber’s Budget Committee, in the hours before the vote.
The long and winding path to passage began in the spring, after Biden put forward two outlines for economic packages totaling more than $4 trillion. Many Democrats saw the twin plans—one targeting infrastructure, the other more “social” spending—as inseparable and complementary.
Republicans proved willing to lend their votes only toward advancing the public-works package, as they shared a desire to fix the country’s aging inner-workings. But they vehemently opposed the rest of the president’s agenda, which many GOP lawmakers likened to socialism and claimed would added to the deficit and worsen the threat of inflation at a time when prices already are on the rise.
“If you’re worried about rising prices shrinking your paychecks more and more each month, these trillions in new government spending will only make it worse,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the top Republican on the tax-focused Ways and Means Committee.
Democrats ultimately forged package over the course of a tumultuous, roughly seven month marathon that at times tested the political cohesion of a party with widening ideological divides. Liberals have scrambled to secure a slew of new spending measures now that they have a narrow but potent majority in the House and Senate, at times worrying moderates, who repeatedly have urged greater fiscal restraint.
In the House, where Pelosi possesses only a three-vote advantage, the tensions sometimes proved incapacitating, forcing Democrats to stomach considerable delays and repeatedly canceled votes on their signature spending plan. It even drew in Biden personally, prompting the president repeatedly to reengage his roots as a legislator and embark on a flurry of calls, meetings and visits to the Capitol in the final hours of the fight to keep Democrats united.
At first, Democrats on Capitol Hill had grand ambitions to spend as much as $3.5 trillion. By summer, they adopted a budget blueprint assembled chiefly by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., setting in motion a delicate process to craft a bill up to that amount. House lawmakers painfully assembled roughly 2,000 pages of legislative text that seemingly left no portion of the U.S. economy untouched.
But their grand ambitions soon collided with the nature of their own narrow majority, particularly in the Senate, where they party must use a tactic known as reconciliation to advance the measure. The move allows Democrats to bypass GOP opposition, but only if they remain united—a delicate balance that opened the door for two moderates in the chamber to seek significant changes to spending package.
One of the holdouts, Manchin, sought to scale back Democrats’ spending plans by more than half. He repeatedly opposed the party’s attempts to create new social spending programs, fretting the solvency of the federal government and the potential that new spending could cause inflation. At one point during the summer, he called on Democrats to hit “pause” on the entire policymaking process, thrusting Biden’s economic agenda into political disarray.