WASHINGTON — Nearly two years after Joe Biden began his presidential campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh with the promise to “rebuild the backbone of the country,” the president will return to the Steel City to launch an effort to make good on that pledge.
In a speech Wednesday, Biden will to lay out the first part of a massive two-part, multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan that is expected to include projects as varied as highways and “human infrastructure,” like child care. The kitchen-sink approach is designed to push the economy in a greener and more equitable direction, paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
“This next package is really about investing in our future and in making the kinds of smart investments that we know will increase growth,” Cecilia Rouse, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters last week. “And we want that growth to be widely shared.”
The sweeping legislative package would be legacy-making for the nascent Biden administration, but it will face a steep climb up Capitol Hill, where time to pass major bills is already waning. Biden has already signed a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill.
“The last go-around is going to seem like child’s play compared to the headwinds the administration is going to be facing this time,” said Jim Manley, who was an aide to Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate majority leader.
“There is a sense of spending fatigue on some quarters on Capitol Hill, not only among Republicans but some Democrats, as well,” Manley said. “The wish list is getting awfully long, and I question how much of it is going to get done in the end.”
The $2 trillion proposal, which is being called the American Jobs Plan, will focus on projects that could get bipartisan support, like roads and bridges, expanded broadband internet access, electrical grid and building modernization, and investments in clean energy, like electric vehicle charging stations. It also includes an expansion of home health care services, which are in demand for the aging population.
The White House argues that the plan would create millions of jobs, many of them aimed at disadvantaged communities.
The administration intends to unveil a second phase next month, which will include an expansion of the social safety net, like making a recent expansion in child tax care credits permanent or lowering the eligibility age for Medicare.
The White House wants to move quickly while it believes it still has the political momentum that comes with a new administration and with the goodwill it got from the Covid-19 relief package, which sent stimulus cash payments to millions of people.
Many Democrats, climate advocates and economists say the plan is a once-in-a-blue-moon chance to make what Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently called a “generational investment.”
The White House is preparing for months of back and forth with Congress over the bill, and it sees the plan that Biden will lay out Wednesday as a starting point for negotiations. A White House official said the administration expects Congress to make “significant progress” by Memorial Day but not necessarily to pass a bill by then.
“It’s a perfect storm for really bold, transformative and large-scale investment to both stimulate and transform our economy. It’s hard to imagine another opportunity like this,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the progressive Working Families Party. “We want this to kick off a decade of large-scale investment to transform our economy and meet the needs of the future.”
The Working Families Party and other progressive groups are planning 120 events across the country, both in person and virtually, during the congressional recess to push moderate Democrats to back the plan.
Democrats’ razor-thin majorities on Capitol Hill mean they can’t afford a single defection in the 50-50 Senate and not more than a handful in the House, unless Republican support grows.
“We’re open to changes, open to alternative ideas. Critics will be invited to share alternative approaches,” the White House official said.
That’s a shift from the Covid-19 relief bill, about which the White House showed little interest in compromising with Republicans.
If they don’t get much Republican support, Democrats could once again resort to using the budget reconciliation process, which would circumvent a GOP filibuster and require only 50 votes to succeed. But Senate rules limit what can be included in a reconciliation bill, so some of the more ambitious ideas might have to be discarded.
“For anyone looking at the road ahead, there’s a sense that this may be the last train leaving the station for a while,” Manley said, unless Democrats decide to end or pare back the filibuster.
In a highly polarized Washington, infrastructure is often an oasis of bipartisanship.
Many Republicans and business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support spending on physical infrastructure, which recently got a “C-minus” grade in an annual review conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
But that oasis may prove to be a mirage, especially because Biden wants to pay for his plan by raising taxes on corporations and Americans making over $400,000, including a 28 percent corporate tax rate — up from 21 percent — and a global minimum tax on multinational corporations.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any enthusiasm on our side for a tax increase,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters last week.
McConnell predicted that the infrastructure bill would be a “Trojan horse” packed with progressive wish-list items. “They will try to jam everything they can into that bill and call it an infrastructure bill,” he said.
The White House is open to Congress’ breaking some of the elements off into separate legislation if that could help get the measures passed more quickly. One piece of legislation already before the Senate with bipartisan support is a bill to increase U.S. competitiveness with China.
The administration is also likely to have to contend with more division within the Democratic Party.
Some moderate House Democrats said Tuesday that they won’t support the bill unless it repeals a cap on the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted on federal tax returns, which primarily affects residents of high-cost, high-tax areas, like New York and New Jersey. Republicans capped the tax, known as SALT — which essentially amounted to a tax increase — when they passed a tax cut package in 2017.
“We say ‘No SALT, no deal,'” Reps. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., said in a statement.
The White House and other Democrats say the legislation is a way to advance proposals to mitigate climate change and racial inequality, but in the Senate the measures could cost the support of not only Republicans but also moderate Democrats, a Senate aide said.
And while the Senate is likely to have the votes to pass a bill focused on traditional infrastructure projects, like roads and bridges, that alone might be spurned by House Democrats who feel it doesn’t go far enough.
“We must stop spending billions of taxpayer money on infrastructure systems only for them to fail at the most crucial moment,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a statement Tuesday.