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Biden, progressives face high stakes in big speech

President Biden
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The stakes for President Biden’s relationship with progressives will be high on Wednesday when he addresses Congress and the nation on his expected $1.8 trillion American Families Plan to reshape the U.S. economy.

Biden’s plan represents an aggressive effort during a pandemic to change the social safety net by providing better child care for families, free community college and prekindergarten, and paid parental leave — much of it paid for by increased taxes on the wealthy.

All the same, it falls well short of what progressive leaders want, and is already leading to a scramble in the House and Senate as lawmakers seek to add to a package that has yet to be formally unveiled.

Progressives happy with the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency have raised their expectations, and it may be tough for Biden to keep them satisfied.

Liberal lawmakers believe strongly that now is the time to act. They worry that Democrats could lose control of the House, where Democrats have only a six-seat majority, in 2022.

They see Biden’s initial months in office as a once-in-a-generation chance to transform the nation’s understanding of government and its relationship to the U.S. economy, something that former President Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s and former President Reagan did in the 1980s.

“It’s the big task that presidents have, I believe, which is to constantly and repetitively do what Roosevelt did: Remind people of where they’ve been and how they’ve got there and what they need to do,” said Robert Borosage, co-founder of Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group.

“Reagan did that very well. Roosevelt did that very well. Biden, in his policies, is making a big turn and one that’s mandated by the crises we face and it’s important he frame his speech so Americans can start to understand that,” he said.

Progressives have praised Biden for going further than former Presidents Clinton and Obama to transform the economy through massive investment, but they want more.

For example, Biden’s plan is expected to provide $225 billion for expanded child care, $200 billion for universal prekindergarten, $300 billion for educational priorities such as two years of free community college and $225 billion for paid family and medical leave.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who ran to the left of Biden in last year’s primary fight but has since become an ally, wants to provide $700 billion — not just $225 billion — for expanded child care so that anyone in the country who needs care can have it at an affordable cost.

“We’re talking about child care for every single child in America whose parent wants it and making sure that capacity is there in our system,” Warren told reporters Tuesday when asked why her proposal would cost significantly more than the White House offer.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and his $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal have progressive leaders feeling good about the trajectory of his administration.

“President Biden has definitely exceeded expectations that progressives had. I’ll be frank, I think a lot of us expected a much more conservative administration,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a leading progressive voice in the House who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president, said Monday in a livestreamed talk. 

“The active invitation and willingness and collaboration with progressives in his first 100 days or almost 100 days has been very impressive,” she added.

But Ocasio-Cortez also acknowledged: “There are areas … of disagreement.”

Progressives want Biden to offer more detail on legislation to address climate change.

“They’ve talked about the huge [electric vehicle] program, they’ve talked about the huge clean electricity standard. Those things are good; we don’t know what else they’re going to throw in,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading proponent of addressing warming global temperatures.

Some progressive groups were disappointed the infrastructure plan didn’t do more to fight global warming, even as the provisions that were included drew barbs from the GOP.

The Sunrise Movement noted that Biden’s first infrastructure proposal would upgrade only 2 million out of 140 million housing units across the country and would provide only $180 billion in research and development of climate solutions, substantially less than the $300 billion the group says Biden promised during the 2020 campaign.

Sanders, who supports Warren’s child care proposal, also wants the Medicare eligibility age to be reduced to 60, 55 or 50. And he wants Medicare benefits expanded to cover hearing, dental and vision care. 

“We have an historic opportunity to make the most significant expansion of Medicare since it was signed into law,” Sanders wrote in a letter to Biden on Saturday. Sixteen Democrats including Warren and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) signed the letter.

Sanders on Tuesday said Biden is on the cusp of what should be a transformational moment in the country’s history.

“I think it needs to be,” he said. “I think the American people understand that the very rich are getting richer and the needs of working families are being ignored and it’s time to reform and start paying attention to the needs of ordinary folks.”

Biden’s American Families Plan is not expected to include a provision to lower the price of prescription drugs, which is a key difference from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Pelosi last week called for prescription drug pricing legislation to be included in Biden’s plan.

“Seniors and families across America are counting on us to finally deliver the drug price negotiations they need to afford their medications,” she said. “Lowering health costs and prescription drug prices will be a top priority for House Democrats to be included in the American Families Plan.”

In a nod to Democratic concerns that Biden’s newest proposal doesn’t do enough on health care, White House officials added $200 billion in expanded tax credits to reduce insurance premiums under the Affordable Care Act.

–Updated at 8:15 a.m.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Biden address to Congress Dick Durbin Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Sheldon Whitehouse

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