House Democrats have finally passed President Joe Biden’s sweeping social spending and climate change bill after months of feuding – but that triumph is tempered by new questions over whether the $1.9 trillion measure can survive the Senate and then offer the short-term jolt of political energy Biden’s wobbling presidency needs.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drove through the legislation, which had caused fierce battles between progressive and moderate Democrats, only after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy staged one more delay – with a histrionic filibuster-style speech that broke records and lasted more than eight hours overnight. Democrats hit back by postponing the vote until breakfast time, saying they wanted Americans to be awake to see them passing life-changing legislation.
The Build Back Better bill represents one of the broadest reforms of education and health care in decades as part of a bill that also includes more than $500 billion for fighting climate change. But a bill that has already faced brushes with extinction and unleashed extraordinary bitterness between Democratic factions probably has its most perilous days ahead given deep skepticism of much of its text, including from Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has not yet said he is even ready to vote to bring it up for debate.
And the House isn’t done with the measure either. A significantly pared down version is likely to reemerge from the Senate with provisions on paid family leave and immigration, which are cherished by liberals, expected to be cut. That could provoke a progressive backlash when an amended version returns to the House for final passage. So Biden’s legacy achievement is far from assured.
And it’s unclear whether the massive bill will be a political winner in the short-term. While it would validate a core premise of Biden’s case to voters last year that his years of Capitol Hill experience would help him pass big, serious, reform legislation, the bill may not address factors dragging down his presidency. Biden’s approval ratings tumbled after a rough summer that included the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a wave of Covid-19 infections from the Delta variant after the President said the pandemic was mostly over, and the inflation spike and a surge in gas prices that is leaving many voters disgruntled. It’s also possible Democrats have overreached by trying to pass massive, liberal, social reform bills despite not having been given a wide mandate during the 2020 elections.
Still, Pelosi hailed the measure as a victory in line with generations of legislation designed to improve peoples’ lives by forging social progress.
“For centuries, members of Congress (have) stood exactly where we stand to pass legislation of extraordinary consequence in our nation’s history and for our nation’s future,” Pelosi said, after arriving in the House chamber shortly after 8 a.m. ET.
“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.”
The bitterness and chaos of the final hours before the vote epitomized the turmoil that has raged around the Build Back Better bill for months. In fact, the spectacle of Democrats squabbling over its size has obscured for the public much of what’s in the package. And while it represents a cornerstone of Biden’s agenda and is intended to ease economic troubles facing millions of Americans, polls show that many voters believe the President is not addressing the nation’s most important issues.
McCarthy’s speech was in essence a lengthy preview of the Republican argument for next year’s midterm elections, as he lambasted Biden over the high gas prices and inflation that are making Thanksgiving more expensive this year. He roasted the President’s leadership in Afghanistan. His speech was also deeply repetitive and sometimes misleading about what was in the bill. It meandered into trivial matters with McCarthy running out of material – he repeated several stories about his son’s move to crime-plagued San Francisco and his visits to the southern border. At one point he digressed into musing about the size of carrots.
McCarthy may also have had motives other than the bill at hand. He is facing increased pressure from allies of ex-President Donald Trump, including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who suggested on Thursday that Trump should be elected speaker if the GOP wins the House next year. McCarthy has done everything he can to shield the ex-President from the consequences of his coup attempt and to turn his party into a compliant tool in Trump’s political arsenal. But leading the charge with an hourslong speech that frustrated Democrats will certainly guarantee McCarthy plenty of coverage on social media – and may garner praise from Trump himself.
Uncertain fate in the Senate
The Build Back Better bill has threatened at times to rip the Democratic Party apart and may still doom some threatened lawmakers in the midterm elections if it passes into law.
Its fate in the Senate remains unclear. Manchin, in particular, wary of its cost, is still uncertain about the scale of many of its programs and the impact of the sprawling bill on inflation. The West Virginian’s reservations, as well as those of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, will present Biden with a test of his authority and stature since he had pledged to progressives that he would finally be able to get both behind the bill, and assure its passage through the Senate. Some progressives who wanted a much larger package are likely to be disappointed. But Manchin has huge leverage since Democrats cannot afford to lose a single member of their caucus in the 50-50 Senate.
Still, the House passage of the bill after months of Democratic infighting, which at one point threatened to also scupper the bipartisan infrastructure plan, represents a genuine victory for the President, coming the same week that he signed that infrastructure bill into law. It could boost enthusiasm for his administration among grassroots Democrats he needs to stave off a disaster in next November’s midterm elections. And while it has been roughly halved in size to win the support of moderate Democrats, the measure includes many programs on which the party has campaigned in successive elections. It would provide two years of free pre-K education and vastly expand home health care for sick and elderly Americans. The bill extends for one year a child tax credit that supporters say lifted millions out of poverty, expands Affordable Care Act subsidies, provides a Medicare hearing benefit, and provides tens of billions of dollars for affordable housing.
If it eventually makes it through the Senate, where Democratic leaders are targeting a final vote before the end of the year, the measure will enhance Biden’s claim for a place alongside some of his party’s most significant social reformers. It would also be a signature achievement for Pelosi, potentially even outranking her successful push to pass the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration, and could also be a career capstone for the country’s first female speaker if Democrats lose control of the House next year.
Dramatic final hours
McCarthy played into such concerns in his marathon speech, warning that the measure’s “destructive policies” would hammer American workers and families and could help doom the Democrats in the midterm elections.
“It will crush American industries, it will destroy countless American jobs,” he said, comparing the bill to the passage of Obamacare in 2010, when he said he saw Pelosi “walk the Democratic members right down here and pass Obamacare and lose 63 seats.”
The dramatic final hours ahead of the bill’s likely passage underscored the perilous vote that some endangered lawmakers took to send it to the Senate. Moderate Democrats had waited until the Congressional Budget Office released its assessment of the impact of the measure on the deficit before agreeing to pass it. The CBO estimated that the measure would result in a net increase of $367 billion to the deficit between 2022 and 2031. The White House, however, insists that the bill will be fully paid for. It says it can make up the shortfall because the bill includes funding for better enforcement of Internal Revenue Service tax collecting.
But the CBO score represents a huge opening for Republicans who will target vulnerable House members next year with their claims that Democrats are on a “socialist” spending spree that will bankrupt future generations — notwithstanding the fact the Republican Party cared little for the deficit when Trump was President.
Republican leaders and allied groups were already seizing on the deficit question Thursday night. “Representatives Josh Gottheimer (NJ-05), Ed Case (HI-01), Stephanie Murphy (FL-07), Kurt Schrader (OR-05), and Kathleen Rice (NY-04) promised their constituents that they would not raise the deficit. If they break their word and vote for this bill, they’re betraying their constituents,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement, for instance.
In another twist, the bill’s supporters must also overcome a wrangle over a provision that would expand a state and local tax deduction that critics – including one of the bill’s authors, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – have said is wrong and bad politics. Lifting the cap on state and local tax deductions has been a priority for members from high-tax states like New York and New Jersey, but progressives say that the plan is a giveaway to the rich. In an unusual reversal of normal political practice, some conservative Republicans are making the same argument, despite their own 2017 tax bill, which capped the deductions and gave the wealthy and corporations tax cuts.
This story has updated with House passage of the bill.