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House Narrowly Passes Biden's Social Safety Net and Climate Bill

By Emily Cochrane and Jonathan Weisman
November 21, 2021
Even pared back from the $3.5 trillion plan President Biden originally sought, the House measure could prove as transformative as any legislative effort since the 1960s
Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The House narrowly passed the centerpiece of President Biden’s domestic agenda on Friday, approving $2.2 trillion in spending over the next decade to battle climate change, expand health care and reweave the nation’s social safety net, over the unanimous opposition of Republicans.

The bill’s passage, 220 to 213, came after weeks of cajoling, arm-twisting and legislative legerdemain by Democrats. It was capped off by an exhausting, circuitous and record-breaking speech of more than eight hours by the House Republican leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, that pushed a planned Thursday vote past midnight, then delayed it to Friday morning — but did nothing to dent Democratic unity.

Groggy lawmakers reassembled at 8 a.m., three hours after Mr. McCarthy finally abandoned the floor, to begin the final series of votes to send one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in half a century to the Senate.

“Under this dome, 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,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, adding that the act “will be the pillar of health and financial security in America.”

The bill still has a long and difficult road ahead. Democratic leaders must coax it through the 50-50 Senate and navigate a tortuous budget process that is almost certain to reshape the measure and force it back to the House — if it passes at all.

But even pared back from the $3.5 trillion plan that Mr. Biden originally sought, the legislation could prove as transformative as any since the Great Society and War on Poverty in the 1960s, especially for young families and older Americans. The Congressional Budget Office published an official cost estimate on Thursday afternoon that found the package would increase the federal budget deficit by $160 billion over 10 years.

“It puts us on the path to build our economy back better than before by rebuilding the backbone of America: working people and the middle class,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. He urged the Senate to swiftly pass the measure.

The assessment indicated that the package overall would cost slightly more than Mr. Biden’s latest proposal — $2.2 trillion rather than $1.85 trillion.

Republicans, who have railed for months against the measure as a costly initiative that would steer the nation toward socialism, wasted little time in promising to try to weaponize it against Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.

“This bill would worsen inflation by pumping trillions of dollars in wasteful spending into the economy, give tax cuts to the wealthy, hike taxes on middle-class families and add hundreds of billions to the national debt,” Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, said in a statement that derided the bill, which Mr. Biden has called the Build Back Better Act, as “Build Back Broke.”
“Americans will see through their lies, and the R.N.C. will make sure voters don’t forget the Democrats’ failures come next November,” Ms. McDaniel said.

The bill offers universal prekindergarten, generous subsidies for childcare that extend well into the middle class, expanded financial aid for college, hundreds of billions of dollars in housing support, home and community care for older Americans, a new hearing benefit for Medicare and price controls for prescription drugs.

More than half a trillion dollars would go toward shifting the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels to renewable energy and electric cars, the largest investment ever to slow the warming of the planet. The package would largely be paid for with tax increases on high earners and corporations, estimated to bring in nearly $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

Savings in government spending on prescription drugs are projected to bring in another $260 billion.

The fact that the bill could slightly add to the federal deficit did not dissuade House Democrats from voting for it, in part because the analysis boiled down to a dispute over a single line item: how much the I.R.S. would collect by cracking down on people and companies that dodge large tax bills.

The legislation is a key piece of Mr. Biden’s domestic policy agenda, paired with a $1 trillion infrastructure package that the president signed into law this week. Its path to Friday’s vote was arduous, from midsummer to deep autumn, with negotiations pitting liberal lawmakers against centrists and House Democrats against senators.

And from the beginning, Republicans — who made it clear they could never support a package of the scope and ambition Mr. Biden had proposed — were cut out of the talks. While some Republicans voted for the infrastructure measure, they unanimously opposed the social safety net package, arguing that it would constitute a dangerous encroachment of the federal government into every aspect of American life, and would exacerbate rising costs across the country.

A spokeswoman for the Republicans’ House campaign arm said Democrats “seem intent on destroying our economy before they lose the majority.” And in the Senate, party leaders were openly pressuring Democratic senators to tank their party’s marquee legislation.

“Only a few Senate Democrats can protect American families from these radical and painful policies,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader. “It is up to them to kill this bill.”

It was Mr. McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, who made a futile last stand against the measure in that chamber, taking advantage of what is known as the “magic minute” — a custom that allows party leaders to speak without time constraints when they are granted their minute of floor time.

He held the floor well into Friday morning, railing for more than eight hours against the bill and the Biden administration, breaking the record for the longest continuous House speech in modern history set by Ms. Pelosi in 2018 before he concluded at 5:10 a.m. Some Democrats pointedly walked out before he began to speak, and at times interrupted his speech against the bill with boos, heckles and jeers.

“Every page of all this new Washington spending shows just how irresponsible and out of touch the Democrats are to the challenges that America faces today,” Mr. McCarthy said during his speech, which appeared intended to rally his Republican base behind a message for the midterm elections and burnish his own bid for speaker should his party prevail.

But just hours later, Democrats filed into the chamber, joking about the lack of sleep and ready to vote. And if Democrats feared the political consequences, it was not evident from the final tally, which reflected support among those from the most competitive districts.

As the vote tally ticked past 218, Democrats began hugging and dancing in the aisles of the House chamber, chanting “Build Back Better.” Once Ms. Pelosi banged the gavel to signal the end of the vote, lawmakers swarmed her on the House floor, yelling her name and cheering, as Republicans sat expressionless across the room.

The only Democrat who opposed the bill, Representative Jared Golden of Maine, did so after raising concerns this month about the inclusion of a provision that would generously increase the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes paid, from $10,000 a year to $80,000. But he suggested in a series of statements on Twitter that his vote could still be won with changes to the so-called SALT proposal and other possible tweaks once it reaches the Senate.

The action — after months of time-consuming maneuvering over the bill — was fueled in part by an eagerness among lawmakers to wrap up their work and leave Washington for their weeklong Thanksgiving recess. It came about eight months after Mr. Biden unveiled the first part of his domestic policy agenda, and after several near-death experiences for the package that have exposed deep divisions within his party.

The vote showed remarkable Democratic unity, given the struggle to get to it. A group of moderate and conservative holdouts, wary about the size of the bill, had held out for an official estimate before they would commit to supporting it.

But after the release on Thursday of section-by-section assessments from the Congressional Budget Office, the official fiscal scorekeeper, most were swayed. White House officials met privately with the group Thursday evening to walk them through the administration’s analysis and the budget tables, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

For Democrats, the bill is perhaps the last significant opportunity to push through their domestic policy ambitions: an array of environmental provisions, federal support for education and childcare, and the fulfillment of a longtime campaign promise to tackle the soaring cost of prescription drugs.

“Now, it’s going to be just telling our story — that’s the challenge,” said Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, as staff members carried fresh cups of coffee into his ceremonial office.

The legislation is all but guaranteed to change in the Senate, where two Democratic centrists, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have yet to explicitly endorse it. In an evenly divided Senate, a single defection could sink its passage, and Democrats will have to maneuver the bill through their own internal divisions and a rapid-fire series of politically difficult amendments that could upend the bill.

At a celebratory news conference with top Democratic leaders, Ms. Pelosi downplayed the extent of possible changes and vowed that “at the end of the day, we will have a great bill.”

Democrats must also ensure that the entire plan adheres to the strict rules that govern the reconciliation process and force the removal of any provision that does not have a direct fiscal effect. Those rules have already forced the party to abandon a plan to provide a path to citizenship in the bill for undocumented immigrants.

he Senate parliamentarian, the arbiter of those rules, has yet to issue guidance for their latest proposal to provide temporary protection from deportation for millions of migrants who are long-term residents of the United States.

Other elements of the plan may also shift because of objections from individual senators. Mr. Manchin, in particular, has raised a variety of concerns, including to four weeks of federal paid family and medical leave and a push to include a fee on emissions of methane, a powerful pollutant.

And some liberals have rejected the House provision to generously increase the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes paid, which would primarily benefit wealthy homeowners who itemize their deductions. Instead, they and other senators are discussing an income limit to curtail who could take advantage of the increased deduction.

While some Democrats have publicly complained about its inclusion, several lawmakers from high-tax states like New York and New Jersey had established it as a requirement for their votes.

Democratic leaders have suggested that the Senate would move to pass the legislation before the end of the year, despite a number of other pressing fiscal deadlines piling up in December.

“We will act as quickly as possible to get this bill to President Biden’s desk and deliver help for middle-class families,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, in a statement.