WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s “build back better” agenda is poised to be the most far-reaching federal investment since FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society — a prodigious effort to tax the rich and shift money into projects and programs touching the lives of nearly every American.
The thousands of pages being drafted and debated in Congress are the template for grand ambitions of the Biden agenda, a full funding of Democratic orthodoxy. The plan envisions the government shoring up U.S. households, setting industrial policy to tackle climate change and confronting the gaping income inequality that was laid bare by the COVID-19 crisis.
As the contours of the $3.5 trillion package come into focus, an undertaking on par with those earlier landmark bills, Americans will have to assess: Is this what they signed up for when Biden won the White House?
Lawmakers on the front lines are about to find out.
“We’re doing hard things,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign committee tasked with maintaining the party’s slender majority.
“We’re not perfect,” he said in a conference call Wednesday, “but we’re responsible adults, and we’re here to fix problems.”
Republicans fundamentally disagree, attempting to label the Biden agenda as “far left” and “socialism” that they will fiercely oppose.
If Biden can pass his plan, it will become a central referendum in the midterm elections in 2022 on whether voters embrace the vision put forth by Democrats.
Among the Democrats’ goals are priorities like universal child care and lower prescription drug prices that have been elusive for decades.
Republicans have largely sidelined themselves from the debate, other than to say they are a hard “no” on Biden’s priorities. Democrats are relying on a budget process that will enable them to pass or fail with their votes alone, resulting in bruising internal party debate between centrists and liberals.
The Democratic differences may yet doom the project. Biden was meeting separately Wednesday at the White House with key centrist holdouts, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who want to lower the price tag substantially. Meanwhile, the House was almost forced to halt deliberations as centrists objected to new restrictions on pharmaceutical company drug pricing.
Still, Democrats appear determined not to let this moment slip. Even with their majority at risk, they appear poised to push the package to passage.
“Democrats see that we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to head this country in a better direction,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., after an intense private meeting of Democrats this week. “People talk about how big this package is; it’s big because we have under-invested for so long.”
The tax provisions largely push top rates back to where they were before the 2017 GOP tax cuts, and the spending expands on popular safety net programs — for example, adding dental, vision and hearing aid benefits for seniors on Medicare.
The top tax rate bumps up to 39.6 percent on households earning more than $400,000, or $450,000 for married couples. Then-President Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress had lowered the top rate to 37 percent.
For corporations, the proposed 26.5 percent rate would be an increase from today’s 21 percent, but not as high as the 28 percent it had been before the GOP tax cuts.