Five takeaways: House passes Biden’s sweeping benefits bill
House Democrats on Friday approved the multitrillion-dollar package of social benefits and climate programs at the heart of President Biden’s domestic agenda, advancing the bill to the Senate in hopes it reaches the president’s desk before Christmas.
The vote marked a huge victory for Biden and the Democrats, who have struggled all year to unite behind the president’s economic vision and leverage their control of government into adoption of the massive package of health care, education and family benefits.
As Congress heads into the long Thanksgiving recess — and each party is banking that the Build Back Better Act will prove a political boon in next year’s midterms — here are five takeaways from Friday’s historic vote.
The moderates fall in line
Several moderate House Democrats voted against portions of the bill in committee and blocked passage earlier this month. But nearly all of them ended up voting for the bill on Friday.
The change of heart came after party leaders whittled the price tag down from $3.5 trillion over 10 years — the figure in the initial House proposal — to roughly $2 trillion.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, negotiators also adjusted certain provisions to get moderates on board, such as one that would allow Medicare to negotiate the price of certain prescription drugs on behalf of seniors.
Five moderates — Reps. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) — struck a deal with progressives earlier this month under which the moderates agreed to vote for the bill after receiving information about the bill’s cost from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
The five lawmakers all ultimately voted for the bill, even though the CBO essentially found that the bill would add about $160 billion to the deficit over 10 years.
The administration argued that a provision to boost IRS enforcement would raise significantly more money than CBO estimated. And the moderates — after meeting with some of Biden’s top economic advisers on Thursday — agreed with the administration that the bill was fiscally responsible.
“I have confidence in that estimate,” Murphy, a co-chair of the centrist Blue Dogs, said of the IRS figure.
Only one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden (Maine), voted against passage on the House floor. Golden, who represents a district former President Trump carried in 2020, cited a tax cut in the package that will effectively benefit a significant number of wealthy taxpayers in high-cost regions of the country — a dynamic Republicans are taking pains to highlight.
Changes are ahead in the Senate
House passage is just the first step of a longer process — “the end of the beginning,” in the words of Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).
The bill now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to undergo a number of changes in order to advance the legislation. In a chamber split 50-50, Democratic leaders will need every member of the party — plus the two Independents who caucus with them — to support the bill in order for it to pass.
To do so, they will need to balance the interests of moderates who want to reduce some of the benefits in the House bill with those of progressives who want to preserve or even expand those provisions.
A House provision providing four weeks of paid family leave, for instance, may need to be cut in order to satisfy Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key moderate who has also balked at House language designed to rein in methane emissions. On the other hand, progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a statement on Friday that he wants to see the bill “strengthened in a number of ways” in areas such as prescription drugs, Medicare and climate.
The Senate is also expected to make changes to a House provision that rolls back the $10,000 cap on the state and local tax deduction. Senate Democrats, joining some in the House, argue that the House provision is too generous to the wealthiest taxpayers — the same gripe aired by Golden.
Additionally, the Senate may need to make additional changes to the House bill in order to ensure that the measure complies with rules governing the budget reconciliation process that Democrats are using to elude a Republican filibuster.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Friday downplayed the significance of the divisions remaining between the House and Senate, saying more than 90 percent of the bill “was written together” and predicting Congress will get it to Biden’s desk without much trouble.
“I have absolutely no doubt,” she said. “The biggest hurdle was to get the bill there.”
McCarthy auditions for Speaker
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) delayed the vote from Thursday night to Friday morning by speaking on the floor for more than 8 ½ hours, breaking a record previously held by Pelosi.
McCarthy railed against the spending plan as “reckless” in a wide-ranging, filibusterlike speech that also spanned topics such as immigration, inflation, slavery and Abraham Lincoln.
The demonstration was lauded by some Republicans, who have vehemently opposed the legislation and welcomed McCarthy’s fiery denunciation.
“Anything to do to delay or stop one of the worst pieces of legislation is appreciated by me,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) said.
But there are political factors at play as well.
It’s no mystery that, if Republicans flip the House after the midterms, McCarthy wants to be the next Speaker — a position he failed to achieve in 2015, when members of the Freedom Caucus, wary of his conservative credentials, blocked his ascent. With that in mind, some observers have viewed McCarthy’s defiant speech as an early effort to win over any lingering doubts about his adherence to far-right policies.
Hanging over McCarthy’s run for the Speakership is Trump, whose blessing he’ll need to attain the gavel. Trump was furious that 13 House Republicans had defied his advice and voted to help Democrats pass the infrastructure bill earlier in the month. McCarthy and his leadership team had whipped hard against the bill but couldn’t prevent those defectors, who now face fierce retaliation from many of their colleagues.
The Build Back Better Act is a more contentious piece of legislation — not a single Republican voted for it — and McCarthy used his floor time to highlight the unity that the conference didn’t have on infrastructure.
In another nod to the former president, McCarthy also dedicated part of his monologue lamenting the fact that Trump was never awarded a Nobel Prize.
The speech — combined with the recent intraparty squabbling — underscores the battle McCarthy faces in trying to navigate the caucus with eyes set on Speakership as Trump continues to wield significant influence among his colleagues.
Big day for Biden amid sinking poll numbers
In passing the spending package, the House lent Biden a significant and much-needed win in the face of plunging poll numbers in recent weeks. The package includes middle-class benefits that Democrats have sought, in some cases, for decades. And the president spoke with Pelosi shortly after the vote to congratulate House Democrats for the feat.
The bill’s passage marks a pivotal moment for the president and House Democrats; after months of embarrassing internal fights, they can now shift the focus of the debate from process to the substance of the legislation.
The White House had been working closely with members in both the House and Senate over the past few months to get the plan over the finish line as disagreements between liberals and centrists on issues ranging from drug pricing to universal paid family leave played out in the media.
At the same time, Biden had been under relentless attack from Republicans over a host of issues, including his administration’s withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, the migrant crisis at the southern border, a stubborn supply chain bottleneck that’s threatened retail and manufacturing markets, and his response to rising inflation concerns.
Biden seized on the legislative victory shortly after the bill’s passage on Friday morning, touting the measure as a “giant step” toward carrying out his economic vision to create jobs, make the country more competitive, and “give working people and the middle class a fighting chance.”
The vote on Friday also comes weeks after the House passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal, another key priority for Biden’s domestic plan. Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law on Monday.
“For the second time in just two weeks, the House of Representatives has moved on critical and consequential pieces of my legislative agenda,” Biden said. “Now, the Build Back Better Act goes to the United States Senate, where I look forward to it passing as soon as possible so I can sign it into law.”
Both sides say it’ll help in midterms
If there was any agreement between the parties during the rousing debate over Build Back Better, it was that the legislation will be a godsend on the campaign trail next year. Where they disagree, though, is on which party it will benefit.
Republicans have hammered the legislation as a classic example of government overreach — a mad rush of new spending that will spike inflation, discourage work and pile trillions of dollars onto the federal debt. GOP voices are pointing to the Republicans’ surprise victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race earlier in the month as evidence that Democrats’ are ignoring voter sentiment — to the GOP’s electoral advantage.
“It’s clear Americans have already grown tired of far-left socialistic policies,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.). “They want their leaders to stop wasting their money — not further fueling the fire of inflation.”
Democrats have a decidedly different view. They note that many of the individual provisions in the legislation — from child care subsidies and elder care services to a Medicare expansion and paid family leave — are overwhelmingly popular across party lines. With that in mind, they’re confident they can bring voters to their side next year — if they can publicize those benefits well enough.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), who heads the Democrats’ campaign arm, acknowledged the difficulty in messaging such a huge bill in a digital news cycle that moves at warp speed. But he’s banking that voters will side with Democrats at the polls — once they realize what new benefits they’ve delivered.
“While we have a tall order in breaking through the noise, delivering these achievements and telling people about them, remember we have a plan to give you a better country,” Maloney said. “The other side has a ploy to win back power for themselves. That’s the difference.”