By Jonathan Lemire and Alexandra Jaffe
Calling opponents of his plans "complicit in America's decline,” President Joe Biden made the case Tuesday for his ambitious building and social spending proposals by framing them as key to America’s global competitiveness and future success.
With his plans in jeopardy on Capitol Hill, Biden visited a union training center in Michigan, declaring that he wanted to “set some things straight” about his agenda and cut through what he dismissed as “noise” in Washington.
“America’s still the largest economy in the world, we still have the most productive workers and the most innovative minds in the world, but we’re at risk of losing our edge as a nation,” he said.
Biden went on to spell out his plans in greater detail than he has in some time, after spending the past week deep in the details of negotiations on Capitol Hill. He highlighted popular individual parts of the plan, including funding for early childhood education and investments to combat climate change, rather than the expensive topline. And he emphasized that the trillions in spending would be drawn out over a decade and paid for by tax increases on corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
Polling suggests that elements in the bill such as expanded child care opportunities and infrastructure projects are popular with large parts of the public. But even some of the White House’s closest allies have worried that the West Wing has not done enough to sell the spending. That brought Biden back on the road Tuesday, hitting the red-leaning district of Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin to sell his policies.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his "Build Back Better" agenda during a visit to the International Union Of Operating Engineers Local 324, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Howell, Mich. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
“These bills are not about left versus right or moderate vs progressive,” Biden said. “These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency.”
Back in Washington, negotiations continue on a pair of bills to boost spending on safety net, health and environmental programs and infrastructure projects.
While there is cautious optimism about recent progress, no deal has been struck to bridge stark divides between moderates and progressives in the Democratic Party on the size and scope of the social spending package. In recent weeks, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi worked unsuccessfully to secure passage of the bills, Biden stayed in Washington to cajole lawmakers and work phones.
Now, he's trying to put the public focus on popular components of the bills rather than the inside-the-Beltway debate over their price tag. While progressives and moderates grapple over the contours and the topline number for the $3.5 trillion social spending package, Biden has sought to reframe the debate around the eye-popping number. He contends that because the spending is to be paid for with tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy — those earning beyond $400,000 a year, or $450,000 for couples — the price tag of the bill is actually “zero.”
Speaking briefly to reporters after his remarks Tuesday, Biden acknowledged that the overall $3.5 trillion number will decline, but insisted he'll “get it done.”
The president was joined by Slotkin during a visit to a union training center in Howell, Michigan, a reflection of the importance of securing moderates’ votes.
Biden, she said, understands “that if we’re going to make these investments we have to be able to pay for them.”
“We talked a lot about the fact that we are not going to take this bill and pass on more debt to our kids, and we are not going to pay for this bill on the back of working families,” she said.
Next to Biden, the Democrats with the most on the line over the shape and success of his spending plans are House members from swing districts whose reelections are essential if his party is to retain control of Congress.
Many of those targeted moderates — including Arizona Rep. Tom O'Halleran, Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger and nine other vulnerable Democrats — joined Biden for a virtual meeting on Tuesday. He held a similar session the previous day with a dozen progressives.
Democratic legislators have warned that Biden’s bold ideas are getting lost in the party's infighting and procedural skirmishes over the legislation.
“We must communicate to the country the transformative nature of the initiatives in the legislation,” Pelosi said in a letter to lawmakers ahead of Biden’s trip.
The visit to Slotkin's district, narrowly carried by Republican Donald Trump in 2020, is part of the sales effort.
Biden was met by hundreds of flag-waving, sign-toting protesters as he arrived at the union training center in Howell.
“I think this is very reflective of how residents, not only here in Livingston County, but real Americans, when you leave the Washington, D.C., bubble, feel about the out-of-control spending between our president and Congress,” said Meghan Reckling, chair of the county Republican Party.
Reckling said 800 people signed up to attend a “Stop the Spending Rally."
The president is trying to give moderates like Slotkin cover for their support for his spending package.
While Slotkin backs the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill that has passed the Senate, she prefers passing it in the House before negotiating the broader $3.5 trillion package of social programs. She has indicated that she may vote to approve the broader bill sooner if it is fiscally responsible and can make a difference for families, her aides said, but she is not a guaranteed yes — which she planned to tell Biden on Tuesday.
“To be honest, it was hard for me to understand why leadership decided in the first place to tie the two bills together,” Slotkin recently told The Detroit News. “That’s not how we normally operate. It’s not my preference.”
Washington was gripped with the drama last week as lawmakers grappled with the massive Democrats-only social spending bill that has been linked with the infrastructure bill. Progressives have balked at paring down the size of $3.5 trillion social package and have refused to vote for the infrastructure bill if the other bill shrinks. Moderate Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing for the bipartisan infrastructure bill to get a House vote first and some are wary about the size of the far larger social spending bill.
That leaves Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress at a crossroads, trying to move past the tangle of legislating and remind voters what they are trying to accomplish.
With considerable attention focused on winning over two key Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, rank-and-file lawmakers could benefit from the high-profile backup that comes from Biden making the case for his vision to the public.
House members are fanning out to their home districts this week as public views of Biden’s agenda are being shaped. Senators remain in Washington but are working on another tangle, the legislation needed to raise the nation’s debt limit by midmonth to avert a devastating credit default.
Pelosi, Schumer and White House officials huddled late Monday in a room off the Senate floor to discuss the next steps for passing Biden’s agenda.
Those behind-the-scenes talks are intense as Biden lowers the size and scope of the $3.5 trillion social spending package to win over Manchin, Sinema and a small band of conservative Democrats in the House without alienating progressives.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro in Washington, Mike Householder in Howell, Michigan and David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this report.
Updated on October 5, 2021, at 4:50 p.m. ET with additional details.