WASHINGTON — After a two-month, $2 trillion sprint to pass aid for an economy still hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic, President Biden is finally set to detail his “Build Back Better” agenda next week in Pittsburgh. Its name, carried over from the 2020 campaign, has become a catchall phrase that cabinet officials and junior aides use to describe all manner of plans to overhaul American capitalism.
In the weeks ahead, the president’s strategic choices will show the country what “building” really means, to him.
Mr. Biden’s forthcoming proposals, which aides and documents suggest could cost as much as $4 trillion over the next decade, are a pivot to the core economic agenda he campaigned on: rebuilding infrastructure, revitalizing America’s competitiveness in emerging industries and reducing the barriers that hold back men of color and women in the workplace.
Mr. Biden will have the benefit of momentum in pushing them, and of a political moment that seems ripe for another large spending bill. Democrats are riding high on the public approval ratings for their coronavirus relief bill across the country. Even the most conservative Democrats in the Senate are eager to spend big again to address infrastructure concerns that have festered for a decade, and to combat widened income inequality that has helped fuel the rise of populist politicians in both parties.
A year of protests over racial justice, and an early administration focus on racial equity, has energized liberal lawmakers to move aggressively to close racial opportunity gaps in the economy. And across party lines in Washington, warnings over increased federal deficits have quieted, as lawmakers voted repeatedly over the past year to spend trillions of dollars to sustain the economy through crisis.
Still, Mr. Biden’s next economic task will be much more difficult than his relief bill, which sailed through the House and Senate with only Democratic votes. Moderate Democrats are more insistent this time that the process engage Republicans, and that at least some of the spending be paid for with tax increases that could add up to trillions of dollars. Conservatives have already lined up to reject Mr. Biden’s plans to force corporations and the rich to pay more to fund the programs.
In navigating those obstacles, Mr. Biden faces a strategic dilemma: how to pass as much of his potentially transformative agenda, as quickly as possible, through the narrow window afforded him by Democrats’ thin margins in the House and Senate.
Mr. Biden’s team has recommended that he split his efforts between two bills, totaling $3 trillion in new spending and up to $1 trillion more in tax breaks, seeing that as a way to ensure that at least part of his agenda makes it through Congress.
Some allies wonder whether the president is willing to compromise the “human” half of his spending priorities — his plans to invest in educational access and programs to lift women in the work force, including help with care for children and aging parents — to secure what would be the most expensive federal investment ever in roads, bridges, public power and the building blocks of a low-carbon energy economy.
Liberal economists stress that if he wants to truly upgrade the economy, Mr. Biden needs both.
“This is actually a really exciting and important moment, in terms of the compelling argument for expanding our concept of infrastructure to include human capital — the idea that strengthening both the work force and the access around care is crucial,” said Thea Lee, the president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington.
“There is an old-fashioned way of thinking,” she said, “which is the only thing that counts as an investment in the future is tangible, a structure that you can pick up or kick.”
Mr. Biden is a politician who loves to build big, tangible things, preferably assembled by well-paid, blue-collar union members. In the waning days of his vice presidency, in 2016, he toured the Mississippi River to celebrate projects built with money from an $800 billion economic stimulus bill that had passed seven years before. He stopped at a port, a bus and train terminal, and a rail yard where he declared, “I’m a railroad guy.”
In his campaign, he spoke frequently of the need to build more in the United States to improve the economy and better compete with international rivals like China in a host of emerging industries like fifth-generation cellular networks, known as 5G, and advanced battery manufacturing. Like President Donald J. Trump before him, he has set ambitious goals to reverse a decades-long slide in American factory employment, pledging to create at least five million new jobs in manufacturing and innovation. Aides say he is particularly fond of repeating his pledge to install 500,000 electric-car charging stations across the country.
The “Build Back Better” plan that his economic advisers recommended Mr. Biden pursue this week would lead with those physical investments: a combination of spending and tax incentives on traditional infrastructure, high-growth industry cultivation and carbon-reducing energy investment that documents suggest could top $2 trillion.
But Mr. Biden’s economic advisers emphasize that the economy needs more than construction to increase productivity and achieve the president’s goals. They argue that it also needs investments in education, like universal prekindergarten and free community college, and in efforts to relieve the burdens of caring for family that often hamper working women. Those initiatives are included in the second half of the proposal that aides took to Mr. Biden this week, along with extensions of newly expanded tax credits meant to fight poverty.
On Wednesday, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Cecilia Rouse, and another of the council’s members, Heather Boushey, said initiatives like providing paid leave and reducing child care costs are critical pieces of building an economy where women can work and earn more.
The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.
Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more
This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.
There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.
The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.
“This next package is really about investing in our future and making the kind of smart investments that we know will increase growth,” Ms. Rouse said at a White House news briefing. “And we want that growth to be widely shared.”
“These aren’t simply women’s issues,” she said. “They affect all families, the ability of our economy to recover and our nation’s competitiveness.”
Inside the administration, aides disagree on the likelihood that both halves of the plan — the physical piece and the human piece — could pass Congress this year. Some see hope that Republicans, spurred by the business community, could join an effort with Democrats to muster 60 votes to pass a bill that spends heavily on roads, bridges, water systems and other traditional infrastructure. Some Democrats, like Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a key swing vote, have insisted that Republicans be involved in the effort.
But most Democrats in and outside the White House see little chance, if any, of a large bipartisan bill taking shape. They point to early opposition from Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who has called the proposals a likely “Trojan horse” for tax increases, and whose aides have begun labeling them a “Green New Deal” in disguise, even before Mr. Biden releases the details.
Lobbyists following the process closely expect Mr. Biden to allow Senate moderates to effectively test the proposition, giving them a fixed time to line up 10 Republicans behind an ambitious infrastructure bill that would almost certainly need to be financed by something other than the tax increases on the wealthy and corporations that the administration favors.
At the same time, Democratic leaders will most likely prepare to move at least one part of Mr. Biden’s plans quickly through the budget reconciliation process, which allows senators to skirt the filibuster and pass legislation with a bare majority, as they did for the coronavirus relief bill. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the chairman of the Finance Committee, said in an interview that he is drawing up legislative text for tax increases to fund the Biden spending: “I’m going to start rolling out specific proposals so that people can have ideas about how they might proceed,” he said.
Moving on a party-line basis could leave all or most of the “human” programs behind, some in the administration fear. But analysts in Washington suggest many of them could eventually be rolled into an epic, single bill, perhaps costing $3 trillion and offset in part by tax increases on corporations and the rich, which would pass with only Democratic votes.
The idea, said Jon Lieber, a former aide to Mr. McConnell who is now managing director, United States, for the Eurasia Group in Washington, is that by moving fast and aggressively, Mr. Biden might be able to strong-arm even reluctant Democrats, who see their political fates tied to the continuing success of the administration in the polls.
The odds of a large bill passing this year, Mr. Lieber said, are “very, very, very, very good. What would stop them?”