House Democrats on Thursday opened a weeks-long debate over the $3.5 trillion spending package they plan to push through Congress in party-line votes, describing the planned expansion of the social safety net as transforming America.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal laid out a vision for the bill transforming society by creating paid family leave, helping families afford child care, giving seniors dental, vision and hearing treatment, and correcting disparities based on race and income.
“This is a historic moment to make investments that reflect what we’ve learned during the pandemic so that the American people will be healthier and our economy will be more inclusive and resilient for generations to come,” Mr. Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, said as his committee began assembling the package.
The $3.5 trillion bill includes a liberal wish list of programs ranging from anti-poverty to climate change. It is the cornerstone of President Biden’s agenda.
Republicans agreed that the left-wing spending spree would be transformative, but warned it would make millions of more Americans dependent on the government, reducing incentives to work, hike taxes and drive up inflation.
“President Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats begin ramming through trillions of wasteful spending and crippling tax hikes that will drive prices up even higher, kill millions of American jobs and usher in a new era of government dependency with the greatest expansion of the welfare state in our lifetimes,” said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the committee.
Rep. Lloyd Smucker, Pennsylvania Republican, said it would “set a course toward socialism” and “provide that government, instead of hard work, to provide every need from cradle to grave.”
Democrats were unfazed by the criticism from Republicans, who are effectively shut out of the legislative process.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, New Jersey Democrat, touted proposals such as creating 12 weeks of government-paid leave to have children or care for sick family members.
“If that’s socialistic, count me in,” he said.
Amid the grand promises from the left and dire warnings from the right, the committee’s Democrats began a race to write the proposal by the end of the month, with the outcome resting solely on their party’s ability to remain united.
To pass the measure, Democrats can spare only three defections in the House and none in the Senate.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, this week opened the door to lowering the price tag, which would have been unimaginable just days ago.
She also vowed that the spending couldn’t go higher, as some on the far-left would like.
Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the most conservative Democratic in the upper chamber and a potentially dangerous swing vote for Mr. Biden’s agenda, has said he is uncomfortable with the $3.5 trillion price tag.
Last week, he called for Congress to take a “strategic pause” before passing the legislation and reportedly suggested cutting the price to $1.5 trillion, which is a non-starter for Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders.
Further complicating matters for Democrats are a flurry of budgetary deadlines to keep the federal government running and avoid a possible credit rating downgrade.
Lawmakers must pass legislation to keep funding the government past Sept. 30 and also raise the debt ceiling before the Treasury runs out of maneuvers to make interest payments, likely in mid-October.
The debt limit is a congressionally imposed ceiling on the amount of debt the federal government can borrow. Republicans have pledged to oppose raising the ceiling as long as Democrats plan to spend trillions on party-line initiatives.
Democrats are pitching the $3.5 trillion bill as “human infrastructure” to sell it to voters. They suggest the bill complements the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which focuses on roads, bridges and airport projects.
The bigger bill includes proposals to fight climate change, amnesty for illegal immigrants, tuition-free community college and expanded government health care programs. It would be funded, in part, by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
Democrats plan to pass it without any Republican support via a special procedure known as budget reconciliation. The procedure allows some spending measures to avoid the Senate‘s 60-vote filibuster threshold and pass with a simple majority of 51 votes — or 50 votes plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Disarray among Democrats threatens the whole deal. Far-left Democrats within both the House and Senate have pressured Mrs. Pelosi to remain firm on the reconciliation package, even warning that they would withhold support from other Biden administration priorities. Progressives pledged to oppose the White House’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package if it is not accompanied by the reconciliation bill.
“Let’s be clear: $3.5 trillion was the compromise,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who chairs the 98-member Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Let’s deliver for people while we still can.”
• Haris Alic and Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.