President Joe Biden used the platform of a joint session of Congress to pitch and promote an ambitious agenda that includes massive infrastructure projects and an expansion of healthcare, education and worker benefits, all paid for by an increase in tax rates on corporations and high-income earners.
But the president also used his first speech before the House and Senate, restricted in size due to strict Covid-19 protocols, to take a victory lap on the eve of his 100th day in office.
“One hundred days since I took the oath of office, I lifted my hand off our family Bible and inherited a nation in crisis,” Biden said. “We all did. The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” a reference to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Joe Biden Gives Congress A Speech That Could Have Come Straight From Aaron Sorkin, Or LBJ: Review
“Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again.”
The speech, running about 64 minutes, also was a historic milestone: For the first time, two women — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris — sat behind a president delivering the speech.
After greeting Pelosi and Harris as “Madam Speaker” and “Madam Vice President,” Biden said, “No president has ever said those words, and it is about time.”
The impact of Covid-19 was apparent from the crowd in the chamber: A greatly reduced number of members were spread out three to eight seats apart, with elected officials seated even in the third-floor area usually reserved for visitors. Lighter applause and cheers replaced what typically are raucous greetings for the commander in chief. Instead of handshakes, Biden gave a fist bump to figures like Chief Justice John Roberts and Sen. Bernie Sanders. All members and attendees were required to wear masks, though Biden took his off while he spoke.
The scene was far different than the previous presidential speech before a joint session, in February 2020, when Donald Trump used the occasion for a packed chamber to exercise reality show-like stunts, like the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh.
Biden also made some news: He set May 25, the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s killing, as a deadline for Congress to pass police reform.
“We’ve all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America,” he said. “Now is our opportunity to make some real progress.”
He also called for passage of a long list of other reforms, including those to strengthen gun laws and to overhaul immigration, but those are longshots for passage given the narrow control that Democrats have in the Senate. For the most part, Republicans remained silent as Democrats applauded, stood up and cheered when the president outlined his proposals.
But atop Biden’s list is more than $4 trillion for infrastructure and expanding the social safety net.
Biden already has traveled the country to try to sell the $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, called the American Jobs Plan, that includes spending for traditional projects likes roads and bridges as well as an upgrade of the electrical grid, improvements to drinking water and wider deployment of high-speed broadband. The plan also includes upgrading affordable housing and schools, and boosting home health care.
It’s still not clear how the plan will move through Congress to secure passage. Republicans balked at its size and have questioned its scope, arguing that many of the spending proposals are for things that aren’t traditional infrastructure. A group of Republicans is offering an alternative proposal, and in his speech, Biden said he welcomed alternative ideas.
“But the rest of the world is not waiting for us,” ha said. “I want to be clear: Doing nothing is not an option.”
Biden said the plan was one that will address those who “feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s rapidly changing.”
“The Americans Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” Biden said. “And it recognizes something I’ve always said: Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class.”
He called for the passage of the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which would strengthen unionization, even though it faces a 60-vote threshold to pass in the Senate.
The White House earlier Wednesday unveiled another aspect of Biden’s agenda, called the American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion proposal that includes free universal pre-school for all 3- and 4-year olds and two years of free community college as well as an increase in Pell Grants and increased support for teachers. The plan also includes nationwide paid family and medical leave, providing workers up to $4,000 a month, with a minimum of two-thirds of average weekly wages replaced, and higher for the lowest-wage workers. Another proposal would provide low- and middle-income families with funding so that they pay no more than 7 percent of their income on high-quality child care.
Biden’s plan also calls for reforming unemployment insurance, with adjustments of benefits depending on economic conditions.
The plan would expand premium benefits of the Affordable Care Act and extend an increased child tax credit, put in place as part of the administration’s Covid-19 relief bill, through 2025.
To pay for the plan, Biden wants to increase the top tax rate on the wealthiest to 39.6%, reversing part of President Donald Trump’s tax bill, which dropped the top rate to 37%. It also would make changes so that households making more than $1 million pay 39.6% on their capital gains income. It also would eliminate the ability of taxpayers to pass on capital gains to heirs. Biden’s plan also would end the so-called “carried interest loophole,” which allows equity and hedge funds to pay a lower capital-gains rate on their income.
The increases in the tax rates would be on top of those unveiled as part of the American Jobs Plan, which calls for increasing the corporate tax rate to 28%, from 21%. Corporations, including Hollywood studios, lobbied heavily for the reduction in 2017.
Biden said: “When you hear someone say that they don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% and on corporate America – ask them: Whose taxes are you going to raise instead, and whose are you going to cut? Look at the big tax cut in 2017. It was supposed to pay for itself and generate vast economic growth. Instead it added $2 trillion to the deficit. It was a huge windfall for corporate America and those at the very top.”
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