The House of Representatives on Friday voted to approve President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act social spending package, capping months of internecine tensions between the moderate and progressive wings of the House Democratic Caucus and putting the fate of Mr Biden’s legislative agenda in the hands of an evenly divided upper chamber.
If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the $1.75trn legislation would represent the largest expansion of the social safety net since President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda was enacted in the 1960s. The bill provides for a host of new initiatives meant to benefit American families, including a new universal pre-kindergarten program, a childcare tax credit, increased funding for senior citizens’ home care, and a one-year expansion of the child tax credit established under the American Rescue Plan Act Covid relief bill which Mr Biden signed into law on 11 March.
Not a single Republican House member voted for the legislation, which House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the “most reckless and irresponsible spending bill in our nation’s history.” Mr McCarthy launched into an eight-hour, 33 minute diatribe against the bill, a speech that was meant to demonstrate his willingness to fight against anything desired by the Democrats, for a GOP audience he hopes will elect him as speaker if they take the majority in next year’s midterm elections. Mr McCarthy’s use of the “magic minute” — a term of art for a House custom which lets each party’s leader ignore limits on speaking time — also broke House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s previous record of eight hours, 7 minutes.
In a pair of statements issued several hours into Mr McCarthy’s rambling speech, a spokesperson for Ms Pelosi called his marathon remarks a “temper tantrum” and a “meandering rant,” in which the GOP leader “did everything he could to avoid talking about the deficit reducing, inflation crushing Build Back Better Act”.
But in the end, the California Republican’s efforts were for naught, with House Democrats abandoning plans for a Thursday night vote in favor of reconvening at 8.00 am on Friday. And after a failed GOP procedural motion, Ms Pelosi’s caucus voted to approve the package by a margin of 220-213, with cheers erupting from the floor as the number of ‘yes’ votes ticked past 218 after more than 30 minutes of voting.
Speaking at the close of debate after the House gaveled back into session on Friday, the Speaker quipped that she “would be brief” out of respect for her colleagues, and praised the legislation she and her colleagues were about to vote on as fulfilling Mr Biden’s vision of bold action to help American families and deliver action on climate change.
“Build Back Better is a better agenda for workers, for families, for children, and for our planet. If you believe as I do that this planet is God’s creation, we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of it. This builds for you,” she said. “But even if you don’t share that view…we all agree that we have a moral responsibility to our children, to their future, to pass on the planet in a responsible way. So we are proud to be passing this legislation under the leadership of President Joe Biden”.
As House members debated the merits of the bill on Thursday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said voting for the measure was something House members would be able to proudly recount to their children and grandchildren in the future.
“Those of us who’ve served in the Congress of the United States on this date will be able to tell our children and our children’s children that we were there when the United States Congress passed one of the most transformational bills in the history of the Congress for the people,” he said.
Referencing the name of Mr Biden’s signature legislation, Mr Hoyer said it “refers to the broad recognition that too many Americans are just barely getting by in our economy and we simply cannot go back to the way things were before the pandemic”. He added that it would “make transformational investments that will help more Americans access opportunities and achieve greater economic security”.
“This bill is truly for the people, not just those who have much, but those who have too little,” he said. “The impact of this historic legislation will be reflected the greater economic security of millions of families, and in the growth and competitiveness of a robust American economy”.
Mr Hoyer said he hopes the Senate will act “quickly” to pass the bill through reconciliation, a parliamentary process that will allow senators to advance it to Mr Biden’s desk without the possibility of a GOP filibuster. While Senate Democrats can pass the bill with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, the chamber’s 50-50 division means any Democratic senator — and particularly moderates such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Krysten Sinema — can exert outsized influence on its’ contents. Mr Manchin, for example, has said he opposes passing any version of the bill which does not include the Hyde Amendment, a decades-old provision that prohibits the use of federal funds for abortions. He has also expressed concerns about the bill’s paid leave provisions.
Speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe just before the House reconvened to approve the bill, White House Domestic Policy Council chair Susan Rice acknowledged the need for negotiations in the Senate, but said she thinks what emerges from the upper chamber will be “a very robust package”.
“There will be certainly be some things that may be … restructured or paired down, but the fundamental elements of this — the healthcare, the child care, prescription drugs, the education provisions, the housing provisions, I am hopeful that we’ll be able to sustain paid family and medical leave — these things are critically important for the American people and we are committing to getting as much of it through the Senate as we possibly can,” she said.
The need for senate negotiations notwithstanding, the House’s approval of Mr Biden’s top legislative priority represents a significant victory for Mr Biden, one that comes just ten days after the House approved the $1.2trn infrastructure bill which he signed into law on Monday. That law, which Democrats say is the largest federal infrastructure investment since the Eisenhower era, had been held up by a dispute between progressive Democrats who wanted to see it passed at the same time as the Build Back Better Act, and moderates who were concerned about the social spending bill’s impact on the federal budget deficit. That measure only passed with the assistance of 13 Republican after six House progressives voted against it.
One of the so-called “Squad” members who voted against the infrastructure package, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, told The Independent that she believes her “no” vote on that bill helped move the social package along.
“I think that our ‘nos’ two weeks ago helped contribute to the pressure and urgency of this vote tonight,” she said.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez added that she was “very glad” that moderate Democrats who’d balked at earlier versions of the social programs bill honoured the agreement with progressives to support the Build Back Better Act in exchange for most of the Congressional Progressive Caucus supporting the infrastructure bill.
“I’m glad that they are living up to their word,” she said.
One such moderate, Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida, said she and a number of other members spent time with White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese after the final Congressional Budget Office “score” of the bill was released Thursday evening.
“He helped to walk us through the numbers and clarify questions that we had…and so we had a really good session where we were able to talk about the fiscal elements of this bill, and then he left and we were able to have a conversation about policy,” she said.
“What I have always said is that I was looking for a fiscally disciplined bill…what I saw is that if you take the Treasury estimates on the IRS provision, we end up with a surplus. And I have received sufficient information to understand how Treasury gets to their estimate, because they are the ones that implement the IRS provisions. And I have confidence in that estimate, and taken into account with the CBO spend information, I feel like this bill is in good fiscal discipline standing”.
Another moderate Democrat, Representative Josh Gottheimer, told The Independent that he was satisfied with the version of the bill that the House voted on late Thursday.
“I feel very good about the direction we’re moving, and especially that the fact that it’s going to reduce the deficit…based on the IRS numbers,” Mr Gottheimer said.
The New Jersey Democrat also touted the bill’s increase of the maximum federal tax deduction for state and local tax payments as a major win for his constituents.
“We’re gonna cut taxes for Jersey families tonight,” he said.
Republicans inserted that provision limiting that deduction, known as the “SALT cap,” into the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act as a way to make the economic impact of that legislation appear less damaging to the federal budget, but many Democrats saw it as Republicans’ way of punishing Americans who lived in states that did not support Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Some progressives, such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have suggested that removing the SALT cap would amount to a tax cut for the wealthy, and the lone Democrat to vote against the bill — Maine’s Jared Golden — cited the provision as his reason for opposing the legislation. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended it as necessary to allow states and localities to provide needed public services.
“The fact is, is that the dynamism that is injected into our states…is what is important here. And we’re not going to have our states with their hands tied behind their back because the former President in the tax scam that they put out there, giving 83 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent in our country while penalizing states that were meeting the needs of their people,” Ms Pelosi said.
On Thursday, Representative Guy Reschenthaler — the Pennsylvania Republican tapped by House GOP leadership to manage floor debate before a series of procedural votes that were meant to pave the way for a vote on final passage — said his Democratic colleagues “were doubling down on…failed tax policies that will make Joe Biden’s economic crisis even worse than it is now”.
But House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern responded that the debate over the measure was putting the difference between Democrats and Republicans on display for all to see.
“This Build Back Better bill is about our values and about what we’re for, about solving problems, and what we hear from our Republican friends is hate and vitriol, blaming Joe Biden for everything…but no solutions,” he said.
“You’re against the extension of the Child Tax Credit, which has decreased child poverty by almost 30 percent? Are you against increasing the Pell Grants? Are you against investing in affordable housing? Are you against dealing with the climate crisis? Are you against the universal, free pre-K for three and four year olds?” he asked.
“These are the things we’re for, and what you hear from the other side is what they’re against. I think the American people think it’s more important for us to tell them what we are for,” he said. “And what this bill is about, is about being on the side of those who struggle in this country every day”.