RoarÂ writer Aneela Aslam on how President Joe Biden’s biggest obstacle to passing his ambitious and popular domestic agenda comes from some within his own party
US President Joe Bidenâ€™s social spending package, known as the Build Back Better Act, has finally been passedÂ by the House of Representatives after weeks of deliberation and delay. It now must be passed by the US Senate before being signed by President Biden.Â The bill, central to Bidenâ€™s domestic agenda, has been dwindled down from the original $3.5 trillion price tag to a measly $1.75 trillion to appease moderate members of the Democratic Party. The $1.75 trillion will be spent across ten years and is mostly paid for by new taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
The bill is also known as the “reconciliation package” as it will be passed through a special rule called budget reconciliation which allows Democrats to bypass the 60-vote supermajority threshold needed to pass most legislation in the US Senate; Democrats currently only have 50 votes, the bare minimum for a Senate majority. Reconciliation has limits though, it can only be used twice a year and just for spending or taxation policy, nothing else. 60-vote supermajorities are extremely rare, occurring only once in the last forty years when Barack Obama led Democrats to a landslide victory in 2008. This allowed him to pass consequential legislation, such as the Affordable Care Act.Â
Centrist Democrats, including Senators Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema have been highly influential in crafting the bill. Since Democrats only have a slim majority in Congress and Republicans are unified in their opposition, they need to get almost all of their members on board.Â After many weeks of negotiations and delays, the House finally passed the bill by a narrow margin of 220-213, with all Republicans voting against it.Â
The Build Back Better act was designed to fulfil Biden’s key campaign promises and boost his approval ratings which fell precipitously in the fall as America saw a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and rising inflation. TheÂ package was pushed by DemocratsÂ in an attempt toÂ combat and reverse the damage done to the economy by former President Donald Trump and, in the longer-term, conservative economics pushed and implemented since Ronald Reagan’s administration.Â
The reconciliation packageÂ would be funded by increased taxes. The bill proposed would strengthen the frayed structure of current social welfare schemes to address decades of soaring economic inequality caused by trickle-down economics. Some key features of the package when presented included an increase in paid parental leave, child-tax credits and MedicareÂ coverage expansions. Also, moreÂ affordableÂ and accessible access to education and strict policies to combat climate change.Â
Despite being overwhelmingly popular with the American public, key features of the originalÂ $3.5 trillionÂ plan that have been heavily disputed between moderate and progressive Democrats are paid parental leave ofÂ 12 weeks, the expansion of the coverage ofÂ Medicare and policies to combat climate change.Â Free childcare and child tax-credits also garnered concerns from opponents of the package.Â Â
Bidenâ€™s key opponent in getting his social reconciliation package passed has been Senator for West Virginia, Joe Manchin who has dictated most of the amendments and cuts to the bill. Manchin has self-described as a â€œmoderate conservative Democratâ€ who has frequently clashed with progressive icons in the party, such as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. With that image, he’s been able to continue winning elections in a state where Donald Trump won almost 70% of the vote.Â
Specifically, Manchinâ€™s strong opposition to the climate change proposals in the bill is due toÂ West Virginia being the second-largest coal producer in the US.Â Manchin also claimed that the climate policies were heavily irresponsible, commenting toÂ CNNÂ that he was â€œvery, very disturbedâ€ by them. However, Manchinâ€™s claims that he has righteous reasons for objecting to the bill are incorrect. A look at Manchinâ€™s own finances and financial tiesÂ demonstrateÂ how he stood toÂ profitÂ by freezing the progress on the bill. Machinâ€™s coal brokerage company,Â Enersystems, means he hasÂ benefitedÂ from rising coal prices due to him blocking the billâ€™s plan to decrease the demand for coal.Â
In turn, Manchinâ€™s actions will lead to low-income families suffering in his own state more; West Virginia is known for its third-world level poverty.Â Due to his influence in slashing relief funds for those whoÂ requireÂ them, a proposed $1 billion in funding for low-income and moderate families to gain coverage through the National Flood InsuranceÂ ProgrammeÂ was decreased to just $600 million. This is ironic considering Manchinâ€™s own state hasÂ been described as beingÂ â€œbatteredâ€Â by the climate crisis and, in 2016, 23 people were killed in a flood in West Virginia. As theÂ GuardianÂ puts it â€œthe US senator is blocking legislation that would demand better of the dirty energy companies that make up his investment portfolioâ€. So as Manchin opposes â€œhand-outsâ€ and uses the worry of economic instability as a front to his constant rejection of the agenda, he neglects to mention how he is happy to line his and his investorâ€™s pockets, at the continued suffering of the very people he represents.
Similar remarks can be made of the Democratic Senator from Arizona, Kirsten Sinema, as she has been a stumbling block to Bidenâ€™s social spending plans, alongside Manchin. Sinema is the antithesis of Manchin: theÂ 45-year-oldÂ isÂ the firstÂ openly bisexual woman to be elected to the Senate and started her political career as a progressive icon in America’s left-wing Green Party. However, since being elected to the Senate in 2018 to represent Arizona, a formerly conservative state that shifted Democratic due to anti-Trump backlash, she has towed a decidedly centrist line and bucked her party on major issues. Her rebellious voting pattern was first put on notice back in March this year, when she voted against a highly-popular measure to raise the national minimum wage.Â
Both Manchin and Sinema are purely motivated by corporate interests.Â Sinema especially successfully killed the Medicare drug pricing program in the social reconciliation package despite campaigning on a pledge to reduce drug costs.Â A pharmaceutical lobby (phRMA) has spentÂ $1.2 millionÂ toÂ contributing to Sinema’s re-election campaign in Arizona since September. Increasing theÂ perspectiveÂ that her reasoning is not â€œfiscalÂ responsibilityâ€ or concern for economic instability thatÂ comes with social spending bills. Sinema’s main concerns are the interest of herÂ donors.
Sinema hasÂ spent the better of almost two months dodging reporters’, President Bidenâ€™s and other Democrats’ questions on what she opposes in the bill and why. Instead, she cites â€œfiscal responsibility” as her reasoning.Â Whilst playing coyÂ on her real opinion on the package,Â she hasÂ gained attention for her casual dress sense in the Senate, including wearing denim. If Sinema thinks that her denim dress style makes her more relatable to voters, she would be incorrect. Her politics is anything but popular as Democratic-leaning voters give her low marks in the polls. She claims to be mimicking the “maverick” style of former Republican Senator John McCain, an icon in Arizona who had a reputation for putting country above party. In 2017, he dramatically killed then-President Trump’s signature policy to repeal Obamacare. However, unlike McCain, Sinema’s maverick streak is only to please her corporate donors not uphold principles.Â
Both Manchin and Sinema areÂ moderate DemocratsÂ that will likely face challenging re-election campaigns. For them they chooseÂ to oppose a piece of legislation that could gain them votes, seems nonsensical. Manchin and Sinema joining the Republicans is highly unlikely; both were vehemently critical of former President Trump which makes the GOP no more hospitable to them. Their opposition to the bill is solely motivated by corporateÂ interests. What’s worse is that Manchin hails from a state where his constituentsÂ rely on federal aidÂ for 33.3% of personal income last year while those in more affluent liberal states, like California and New York, relied on much less.
Sinema and Manchinâ€™s power is explained by Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate.Â Currently,Â the Senate has a tie, with 50 Democrats and Republicans, but the former party gets the majority due to Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tie-breaking vote with her party. However, this means that effectively each Democratic senator’s vote counts as a veto. Therefore, without the support of allÂ Senators, legislation cannot be passed in the chamber.
In order to ensure that his presidency is not derailed by Manchin and Sinema, BidenÂ had to considerably cut his social spending plans from $3.5 trillion to just $1.75 trillion.Â Â
TheÂ officialÂ $1.75 trillion package passed through the House of RepresentativesÂ includes:Â
- $555 billion for clean energy and climate investments.Â
- $400 billion for childcare, as preschool is expanded to be universal for 3-4 yearÂ oldsÂ it also plans to limitÂ childcareÂ costs to 7% of family income.Â Â
- The expansion of Medicare to cover hearing.Â
- Extension of child tax credit from 2019, COVID-19 relief bill to 2022. The white house will provide up toÂ $3,600 in tax cuts perÂ childÂ for more than 35 million families.Â Â
- 4 weeks of paidÂ leave for medical or family purposes.Â
- $100 billion to reform America’s immigration system.Â
- $150 billion to build 1 million worth of affordable housing.Â
The amendments to the bill revised the initial plan to expand Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing care to just hearing to appease Manchin’s concerns.Â Additionally, theÂ originalÂ 12 weeksÂ of familyÂ leaveÂ wereÂ removed but then reintroduced as just 4 weeks, still considerably less than almost every other developed country. TwoÂ years of free community college was axed from the bill and was replaced by an expansion of the Pell Gant aid forÂ low-incomeÂ students. A watered-down plan to reduce drug prices that Senator Sinema agreed to was also included though it’s questionable whether it will be enough given America’s sky-high drug costs compared to other nations.
Biden intends to pay for his economic agenda through increased taxation, and the White House claims the taxes present in the bill will raise just under $2 trillion to cover the $1.75 trillion required over ten years for the bill. For the record, the independent Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would add about $250 billion to the deficit over ten years with those new revenue streams accounted for. However, that’s actually fairly negligible as the Republicans’ tax cut back in 2017 was projected to add $1.9 trillion to the deficit.Â
Now that the bill has passed through the House of Representatives it has to be passed in the Senate before being signed by President Biden. This is where the stakes for Bidenâ€™s future lie as there is still no confirmation that Manchin and Sinema will voteÂ inÂ favourÂ of the package. As the Thanksgiving holiday break for Congress ends, the bill could be voted on as early as December 13th.Â While both Manchin and Sinema support passingÂ a reconciliation bill, it’s unclear whether they support this version. If they don’t, Democrats may have to keep chipping away at popular policies, potentially costing them votes in the future.