House Democrats on Thursday moved to advance an expansive domestic policy package that would overhaul large swaths of the American economy, with the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, confident they would ultimately deliver the second pillar of Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.
After months of fits and starts, gridlock and intra-party warring, Pelosi said Democrats were finally on track to pass their package of social and climate initiatives, just two weeks after the chamber gave final approval to a separate effort investing in the nation’s aging infrastructure.
In a joyful letter to party lawmakers, she said all the pieces had fallen into place to enact their “spectacular agenda”, called Build Back Better.
“At the close of the debate, all that remains is to take up the vote – so that we can pass this legislation and achieve President Biden’s vision to Build Back Better,” Pelosi wrote.
Democrats proceeded to a vote following the release of a cost estimate from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, as requested by a band of centrist Democrats with concerns about the legislation’s impact on the federal deficit.
The analysis found that the bill would spend $1.7tn over ten years, increasing the deficit by $367bn over the same span of time. The score did not include estimates of Democrats’ plans to raise revenue by increasing enforcement of federal tax laws, which the treasury department has said would generate another $400bn.
With the analysis complete, the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, said in a statement that “Build Back Better is fully paid for” and would ultimately reduce the country’s debt by enacting “reforms that ask the wealthiest Americans and large corporations to pay their fair share”.
The package is expansive: it aims to dramatically reduce childcare costs, provide universal pre-kindergarten for children, lower the cost of prescription drugs for seniors, expand Medicare to cover hearing aids and provide the largest-ever investment in efforts to combat the climate crisis.
With a paper-thin majority, Democrats can spare only a handful of defections on the package. Party leaders had hoped to pass the measure in tandem with the infrastructure bill, but a last-minute blockade by the centrist lawmakers scuttled those plans.
Even if the House approves the legislation on Thursday, it faces a complicated path forward in the Senate, where any single Democrat could upend the fragile negotiations.
Two of the Senate’s 50 Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have not yet committed to supporting the package, even as negotiators reshaped the climate and tax portions of the package to meet their demands.
Opening the House floor debate on Thursday, Democrats touted the historic nature of the legislation. Congressman John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the chair of the House budget panel, which played a critical role in shaping the package, said any single element of the bill by itself would be significant, but together they represented the “most consequential legislation for American families since the New Deal”.
“It’s a hell of a bill,” he said.
Democrats and Republicans sparred on the House floor over the economics of the plan. Republicans assailed it as reckless spending that would exacerbate the trend of rising inflation and slow economic growth. Democrats argued the opposite, that the bill would actually combat inflation while relieving many of the financial stressors Americans face, such as the cost of childcare and prescription drugs.
Though many of the bill’s initiatives remain broadly popular among voters, including among Republicans, boiling economic discontent have sent Biden’s approval ratings tumbling.
Despite a mass vaccination campaign, falling unemployment and legislative achievements that include the passage of a nearly $2tn relief package in March and the bipartisan public works bill this month, 63% of Americans say he has not accomplished much after 10 months in office, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Facing daunting challenges in next year’s midterm elections, Democrats are hopeful that enacting Biden’s agenda in full will bring something of a reversal of fortunes for the party.