Black Caucus emerges as winner in spending package
The $1.75 trillion framework agreement for President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan represents a significant victory for Black lawmakers, who have been adamant that promises made to Black communities be kept by the White House.
The framework included key priorities of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), including funding for historically Black colleges and universities, an increased child tax credit, affordable housing, universal child care and pre-K, and Medicare expansions.
CBC Chairwoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) in remarks before Friday’s unveiling of the framework suggested Biden knew he needed to deliver for the CBC, which has been disappointed at the lack of progress on key issues such as voting rights and police reform.
She noted that House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) had been instrumental in helping Biden win the Democratic presidential primary by endorsing the former vice president in his home state caucus. Black voters then helped Biden win the South Carolina primary and a series of contests on Super Tuesday.
“The President was very clear that … he needed to demonstrate to us, and he said this publicly, that because of the work of Jim Clyburn, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, the number of black people who came out and voted in our districts because of the issues that we bring forth, whether we’re agreeing with one another and not, it’s all how progress happens,” Beatty said.
She noted that the CBC has “been at the table” for both the Build Back Better legislation and a separate bipartisan infrastructure measure approved by the Senate.
“While it’s not a perfect ending, it is a lot of progress,” Beatty added.
Beatty’s attitude — progress, not perfection — is the prevailing sentiment among her caucus and activists.
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson told The Hill that it was wrong to look at the bill as a zero-sum game.
“We can have — at the exact same time — celebrate accomplishments, as we also raise concerns with the lack of traction around different policy issues,” Johnson said.
“Build Back Better,” Johnson continued, “is going in the right direction. Some of the items that’s going to get passed will be historic in nature. Let’s celebrate that.”
The spending package commits billions of dollars to increasing the maximum amount of Pell Grants while giving billions more to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions.
Specifically, $200 million will go to “research capacity building,” with another $100 million going to “academic research facilities, modernization and research instrumentation, including construction, upgrade, renovation, or repair of research infrastructure.”
The expanded child tax credit, introduced in Biden’s American Rescue Plan, is extended a year through the plan. The program provides $300 per month per child under the age of 6 and then $250 per month for kids ages 6 to 17.
Both Black lawmakers and the White House have sung the praises of the credit’s instant impact on working families.
“We know the expanded child tax credit has already cut child poverty nearly in half, lifting millions of Black children and families out of poverty,” said Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), the caucus’s first vice chairman. “In the months after the first child tax credit payment went out the number of Black families who didn’t have enough to eat dropped by 25 percent. That is real progress.”
Notably, through the package, $150 billion will be put toward public housing; the Biden administration describes it as the “single largest and most comprehensive investment in affordable housing in history.”
Once thought to be on the chopping block, universal child care and pre-K also made the cut.
Over six years, $400 billion will go to what Black lawmakers and activists believe will allow women of color — who have disparately left the workforce during the pandemic — to return to work while improving the education for low-income and minority children.
Black women are the most likely to be the primary source of income for their families, while Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native communities are more likely to live in child care deserts.
Also included is funding to address the Black maternal health crisis, an issue Reps. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and Alma Adams (D-N.C.) championed earlier in the year with the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act.
That said, in a letter, presidents of HBCUs along with the United Negro College Fund called for the investments in both institutions and Pell Grants to be larger.
And lawmakers had hoped for the child tax credit to become permanent for the next decade.
The loss of a paid family leave provision also angered activists and advocates.
“We won’t believe that paid leave is dropped from Build Back Better until President Biden calls to tell us that he is breaking his campaign promise,” Family Values at Work Executive Director Josephine Kalipeni told The Hill.
The U.S. remains the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country that doesn’t have a clear paid maternity leave policy.
“Did we want paid family leave? Did we want [to lower the price of] prescription drugs? Did we want to have [free] community college? Yes, but what we’re getting is transformational,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), the CBC’s second vice chair, told The Hill.
Many members of the CBC back the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, which was again held up from a House vote on Thursday after the Congressional Progressive Caucus endorsed the framework but refused to budge on allowing a vote on infrastructure. They want the two bills to move through the House on the same day.
Progressives also didn’t receive assurances from moderate Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that the framework laid out by Biden has the duo’s support.
“Well, there was frustration [among the CBC], but there’s also an understanding that you have to be able to talk to the two people who were hindering Mr. Biden’s Build Back Better plan and get a framework that they agree to,” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a member of both caucuses, told The Hill.
“You can have all the frameworks you want, but they have to agree to that framework before we can actually pass the bill,” she added.
There was hope the framework agreement would be enough to push through the infrastructure plan ahead of important gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday that Democrats are desperate to defend.
“I’m really disappointed that we weren’t able to move forward. There’s a certain amount of trust that the president asked for when he came and spoke to us [Thursday],” Lawrence said, reiterating the caucus’s support for Biden.
Biden spoke to the whole Democratic caucus on Thursday morning before introducing the framework agreement.
Lawrence, who is also a member of both the CBC and the CPC, said that the majority of the CBC is “ready to move forward” on the infrastructure bill but noted that having both bills pass together was initially what most in the House wanted.
“We all wanted it to move together. Initially, I think every single caucus, we were lockstep on [what] we want,” Lawrence explained.
However, Manchin and Sinema threw a wrench in that plan, the Michigan congresswoman told The Hill.
“[They] created their own agenda, and it prohibited us from moving forward in that fashion,” she said.
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