President Biden on Wednesday evening laid out his sweeping $1.8 trillion “American Families Plan” to a joint session of Congress and prodded lawmakers to act on his other top priorities including policing, immigration and gun control.
Mr. Biden took credit for progress against the COVID-19 pandemic but warned that people must stay vigilant as he urged Americans to get vaccinated.
“After just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” Mr. Biden said. “After 100 days of rescue and renewal, America is ready for a takeoff, in my view.”
For the next hour and five minutes, the president proposed a dramatic and costly expansion of government.
It was his debut presidential address to Congress, but he spoke before a modified joint session. Only about 200 people were on hand to witness the speech, which was delivered in a House chamber that would usually be packed with five or six times that number.
The president immediately commented about the historic nature of his speech, with the presence of Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi marking the first time that two women have sat behind the president for an address to Congress.
“It’s about time,” he said.
In his speech, the president delivered a long list of progressive priorities. He called for Congress to approve a ban on assault weapons, to pass a hotly contested voting-rights bill that Republicans say would nationalize state elections, and to enact the House-passed “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.”
“If we are to truly restore the soul of America – we need to protect the sacred right to vote,” the president said.
Mr. Biden hits his 100-day mark in office Thursday, a benchmark that administrations frequently use as an early gauge of how they measure up to their campaign rhetoric.
He laid out an ambitious and pricey agenda — nearly $6 trillion in spending proposals in three months, to be funded partly by tax increases on corporations and wealthier taxpayers. The president said it’s time for the wealthy to “pay your fair share.”
Mr. Biden’s latest spending package includes $225 billion for child care, $225 billion for a national paid family and medical leave program, $200 billion to extend bolstered Obamacare subsidies in his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, $200 billion for universal pre-K, and $109 billion for two years of free community college for all Americans.
The “families” plan includes roughly $800 billion worth of tax cuts and credits, including extensions of the expanded child, dependent and child care, and earned income credits. The president described his proposals as an expansive safety net for the middle class, using the word “jobs” 42 times.
Nearly four months after the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Biden also portrayed his big-government agenda as a test to show foreign adversaries that American democracy still works.
“They believe we are too full of anger and division and rage,” the president said of foreign powers. “They look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy. They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works — that our government still works, and can deliver for the people.”
The spending, on top of $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief spending and a proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, raised eyebrows among Republicans.
“In his first 100 days, he’s asked for $100 trillion in spending. And to put that in context, our total federal budget that we vote on every year is $1.4 or $1.5 trillion,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, exaggerating the total. “So it’s a massive amount of spending. … If he were younger, I’d say his dad needs to take away the credit card.”
After the speech, Mr. Romney said, “Six trillion and counting. I’m sure Bernie [Sanders] was happy.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said Mr. Biden “is using his presidency to implement the most radical socialist agenda in American history.”
“He plans to ‘Build Back Better’ by growing the government, raising taxes on American families and investments, destroying jobs, and saddling future generations with a massive debt — an agenda that will inevitably crush economic opportunity,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of a group of Republicans who have negotiated with the White House over the infrastructure plan, said Mr. Biden’s agenda “makes it very difficult for it to be truly bipartisan.”
“You have pretty expansive spending on top of spending, with the only way to pay for it is to go after [higher] taxes,” Mrs. Murkowski told reporters after the speech.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican, argued that the president won’t solve the nation’s challenges through one-party approval of “three straight multi-trillion dollar spending packages that will saddle future generations of Americans with debt.”
Democrats praised Mr. Biden’s speech for tackling a series of daunting challenges as the nation emerges from pandemic lockdowns.
“I liked it,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat. “He hit all the topics that I think are just essential for this nation to get back in its seat and move forward.”
To pay for the plan, Mr. Biden wants to raise the top individual income tax rate from 37% to 39.6% and essentially double the capital gains tax rate to the same 39.6% for households earning more than $1 million per year.
The president also wants to beef up IRS enforcement to go after wealthy tax cheats and scofflaws, end an exemption for certain capital gains taxes at death, and close a loophole that allows hedge fund managers to claim a lower tax rate than other workers.
He touted his infrastructure package as a “blue-collar blueprint to build America.”
“It recognizes something I’ve always said, in this chamber and the other: Good guys and women on Wall Street, but Wall Street didn’t build this country,” Mr. Biden said. “The middle class built the country. And unions built the middle class.”
Congressional Democrats were largely supportive of the plan but were already talking about revisions in areas such as education and health care.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said he wants Medicare to be allowed to negotiate prescription drug prices and for companies to lose subsidies if they engage in extreme price gouging on drugs such as insulin.
“My sense is what the president has decided to do is give the Congress the space to find an agreement,” Mr. Wyden said.
Mr. Biden said he wants to work with congressional Republicans on the package, as well as other high-profile items including policing reform and immigration.
But congressional Democrats muscled through the $1.9 trillion relief package, thus far his crowning legislative achievement, without Republican votes. Senate Democrats signaled that they are prepared to do the same for new rounds of spending if Republicans don’t go along.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said earlier Wednesday that Mr. Biden has not lived up to his Inauguration Day pledge to be a president for “all Americans” who would try to heal a bitterly divided country.
“Behind President Biden’s familiar face, it’s like the most radical Washington Democrats have been handed the keys, and they’re trying to speed as far left as they can possibly go before American voters ask for their car back,” Mr. McConnell said.
Mr. Biden also plugged his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, though that is unlikely to sail through Congress as easily as the relief plan.
Republicans, and some Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, said they don’t support the president’s proposed increase in the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% to pay for spending that goes beyond roads and bridges and into areas such as climate change and child care.
Mr. Biden has said the definition of “infrastructure” is ever-changing.
“For me, when I think climate change, I think jobs,” he said. “There is simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.”
Mr. Biden delivered his speech a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people who are fully vaccinated for the coronavirus can stop wearing masks outdoors when they aren’t in crowds.
The administration ended up exceeding the president’s target to get 200 million shots into Americans’ arms within his first 100 days in office. More than 42% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose.
“We can’t let our guard down now,” he said. “Tonight, I can say because of you — the American people — our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history is one of the greatest logistical achievements this country has ever seen.”
Mr. Biden announced this week that the U.S. will ship supplies, including materials for vaccines, to India as that country deals with a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.
Mr. Biden re-upped his call for Congress to pass Democrats’ policing overhaul legislation named after George Floyd, which would set up a national database for police misconduct, ban the use of chokeholds and “no-knock” warrants, and end “qualified immunity” that shields officers from civil lawsuits stemming from carrying out their duties.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, tapped to deliver the Republican response to the address, is pushing his bill on the issue, which drops Democrats’ qualified immunity language — the biggest sticking point in the talks.
The recent trial of Derek Chauvin has lent urgency to the cause. Chauvin, a White former Minneapolis police officer, was found guilty last week of murder and manslaughter charges tied to the death of Floyd in May 2020.
Mr. Scott said that former President Trump helped lay the groundwork for the booming pre-COVID economy and progress on vaccines.
“This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” Mr. Scott said. “Our best future won’t come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams. It will come from you — the American people.”
Mr. Biden called on Congress to pass his immigration plan, which would provide a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the country while beefing up some security elements.
The president signaled that he would be open to smaller packages involving protections for illegal immigrant “Dreamers,” many of whom were brought unwittingly to the country as children, as well as farm and seasonal agricultural workers.
The administration has struggled to deal with an influx of migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border during Mr. Biden’s early days in office.
He has tapped the vice president to oversee migration issues involving the “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
He pushed Congress to take up House-passed legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases and re-upped a call to ban “assault”-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Mr. Biden recently announced a series of limited executive actions, including a ban on “ghost” guns assembled from homemade kits, after a string of mass shootings.
Gun control legislation, Democrats’ bill to overhaul voting laws, and other major party priorities such as immigration and taxes are unlikely to win the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster in the 50-50 Senate.
Mr. Biden also called on Congress to act to lower the cost of prescription drugs, a provision he did not officially include in his “American Families Plan.”
As Mr. Wyden indicated, congressional Democrats are pushing legislation to allow the federal government to negotiate directly with drug companies on prescription costs under Medicare.
Republicans say it’s a needless intrusion into the private markets.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders of Vermont said he will try to attach legislation to expand Medicare, which the White House also left out of the latest spending package.
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