House Dems pass Biden’s $1.85T domestic policy bill; Pa. lawmakers split on party lines

The sprawling ‘Build Back Better’ legislation now goes to the U.S. Senate, where Sen. Bob Casey has called for swift action

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 18: The U.S Capitol Building is prepared for the inaugural ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden as American flags are placed in the ground on the National Mall on January 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. The approximately 191,500 U.S. flags will cover part of the National Mall and will represent the American people who are unable to travel to Washington, DC for the inauguration. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(*This story was updated at 11:34 a.m., on Friday, 11/19/21, to include additional comment, and the roll call vote for Pennsylvania lawmakers)

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Democrats united around a landmark $1.85 trillion social spending and climate bill on Friday, sending the major plank of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda to the Senate.

Democratic leaders in the House heralded the 220-213 near party-line vote on the administration’s Build Back Better bill, touting its provisions on child care, education, health care, taxes and the environment as monumental policy advances—though they are expected to be revised or removed to gain support from Democratic moderates in the Senate.

The lone House Democratic holdout was Maine’s Rep. Jared Golden.

All nine Democratic members of Pennsylvania’s Capitol Hill delegation voted for the bill. Eight of nine Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who backed the Democrats on the administration’s infrastructure bill, but opposed the domestic package, voted no. U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, who is quarantining after contracting COVID-19, was marked non-voting, according to an official House roll call.

But Democrats’ triumphant moment on the eve of the Thanksgiving Day recess was delayed by an all-night filibuster-style speech by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who took the floor at 8:38 p.m. Thursday and spoke until 5:10 a.m. McCarthy railed against the cost of the legislation, President Joe Biden, inflation, and China, and veered into topics such as baby carrots, swimming competitions and the dollar menu at McDonald’s.

As a House leader, McCarthy was allowed to speak as long as he wanted—and his eight hours and 32 minutes beat an eight-hour record set by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in 2018 advocating for immigration reform.

He told Democrats that he had “all night,” to which Democrats responded, “so do we.”

Walking into the U.S. Capitol early Friday morning, Pelosi said she had “no idea” what McCarthy achieved with his filibuster-style speech, according to Capitol Hill pool reports.

“With the passage of the Build Back Better act, we, the Democratic Congress, are taking our place in the long and honorable heritage of our democracy with legislation that will be the pillar of health and financial security in America,” Pelosi said on the House floor shortly before lawmakers voted. As the final tally was announced, Democrats cheered and applauded.

They huddled around Pelosi, chanting her name and clapping.

Friday’s win for House Democrats followed months of intense negotiations with the White House and Senate, infighting between progressive and moderate Democrats and a dramatic scaling back of an even more sprawling social safety net plan from Biden earlier this year. But they finally coalesced.

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“For decades, Congress has based economic policy on trickle-down economics, eviscerating America’s middle class in the process. But today we reject that approach,” U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, said.

She described the bill as “investing in American families, not hedge funds, in ways that will benefit all of us.”

The legislation was held up two weeks ago when moderates insisted on seeing detailed impartial cost estimates for the legislation from the Congressional Budget Office before they could vote in favor of it.

But by Thursday, almost all the moderates had fallen in line, including Reps. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.

Golden, though, voted no, objecting to a provision that gives a tax break to high-earners in high-tax states.

The legislation now faces a tough and lengthy path — and some likely changes — in the evenly divided Senate, where Democrats will need every vote in their caucus for the measure to reach Biden’s desk.

The Senate will use a legislative procedure known as budget reconciliation, which allows Democrats to bypass the Senate’s normal 60-vote threshold and pass the measure without any Republican support.

Moderate  U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., are expected to have an outsized influence on which provisions remain in the final bill. Both were heavily involved in months of negotiations that cut the measure’s initial $3.5 trillion price tag over 10 years in half.

If congressional Democrats can successfully clear the measure through both chambers, it would give them a second major legislative win after the $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure signed into law this week.

Pennsylvania Reaction

In a blizzard of statements released moments after the vote, members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation alternatively praised the bill as a badly needed investment in American families, or condemned it as deficit-buster that would add hundreds of billions of dollars more to the national debt.

“This paid-for legislation will reduce the deficit, ease inflation, and transform the lives of millions of Pennsylvanians — in the last two weeks, we’ve ensured that our roads and bridges will meet the demands of this century,” U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District,  who fell into the former camp, said in a statement. “Now, we’re supporting our families through child care and universal pre-K, paid family leave, cheaper prescription drug costs including insulin, and so much more — these investments coupled with bold action to combat climate change will be felt for generations.”

U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-2nd District, echoed Dean’s comments, calling the bill a “transformative” piece of legislation that will address the “skyrocketing costs of childcare, health care, home- and community-based care, early and higher education, [and] housing.” The bill will “finally unlock the full potential of Pennsylvania families, while also ensuring that the wealthiest and corporations pay their fair share,” he added.

U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-3rd District, added that the legislation, “takes monumental steps to reduce poverty and improve overall quality of life for millions of Americans.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-16th District, took the opposite argument, accusing the House’s Democratic majority of pushing GOP lawmakers away from the negotiating table.

As a result, “Democrats decided to go it alone and did not include our constituents’ voices into these talks,” Kelly said. “This bloated bill does not serve the American people. Instead, it wastes nearly $2 trillion at a time when our national debt is nearing $29 trillion. I cannot support such spending.”

Kelly’s fellow Pennsylvania Republican, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, who represents the Lancaster County-based 11th District, denounced the bill as a “march toward socialism.”

“This legislation makes American companies less competitive in a global economy. The IRS will be weaponized to target small businesses and ordinary Americans,” Smucker said in a statement released by his office.

U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District, piled on in a tweet, arguing the bill spends “money we do not have, for policies Americans do not want.”

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U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, echoed the sentiment, dismissing the bill as the “Build Back Bankrupt spending spree.”

As the bill heads to the other side of the Capitol, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., called on the narrowly divided U.S. Senate to swiftly approve the bill — an action that could prove far easier said than done.

“Today, the House passed legislation to invest in American children, seniors, families and workers. The Build Back Better Act would lower costs for Americans, create jobs and strengthen our nation’s economy,” Casey said. “I applaud my colleagues in the House for passing this important legislation. Now the Senate has an obligation to deliver results for the American people. Working families are depending on us to keep fighting for a better future.”

How much does it cost?

House Republicans opposing the social spending package decried it as too expensive and harmful to the economy.

“This bill should be called the ‘Bad Bad Bad’ bill,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, in a quip that played on the bill’s “Build Back Better” moniker.

“It’s a wishlist of radical policy provisions and reckless spending that would lead to massive tax increases, trillions added to the national debt, and more and more government control of our lives,” Cole added.

The Biden administration has argued the bill will pay for itself through tax increases on the wealthy, big corporations and companies doing business abroad.

An analysis from the Congressional Budget Office released Thursday night projected that the bill would add $367 billion to the deficit over a decade.

The bill would remove the cap on federal deductions taxpayers can take for what they pay in state and local taxes, essentially a tax cut for the wealthy in high-tax states including New Jersey and Maryland—drawing opposition from Golden.

The CBO deficit estimate doesn’t account for possible revenue from increased IRS enforcement, which CBO analysts projected at $207 billion in savings and the Treasury has said could save some $400 billion.

Child care, universal pre-K

Among the bill’s sweeping policy provisions are significant changes to how parents pay for child care.

It allocates $400 billion to pay for universal pre-K for 3-and-4 year-olds, and would provide subsidies to limit how much of a family’s income goes toward daycare costs for younger children.

It also expands the child tax credit so that parents could get a maximum of $3,600 per child under 6, for another year. Under the 2021 tax credit, parents can get up to $300 a month per child age 6 and under and $250 per child ages 6 to 17.

For new parents and other caregivers, Build Back Better includes four weeks of paid leave — a scaled-down provision that’s unlikely to survive in the Senate due to objections from Manchin.

On health care, it would for the first time give Medicare the ability to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on the price of some prescription drugs, and offer coverage of hearing aids for seniors.

It also would address the insurance coverage gap for those living in states that refused to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, by offering tax credits for premium-free health coverage on the Obamacare health exchanges through 2025.

Battling climate change

Progressive Democrats and environmental groups consider the bill a much stronger climate measure than the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law.

Even as the bill’s topline price tag was halved, most of the climate spending remained. The White House has said the measure includes $555 billion in climate spending and tax credits.

The largest category of climate action in the bill is $320 billion in new and extended clean energy tax credits.

The bill would provide a consumer tax credit for electric vehicles. Emissions from transportation make up nearly one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., the largest of any single sector.

The bill also includes funding for a new climate conservation corps program that would create entry-level jobs in conservation and climate resiliency work. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse, both Colorado Democrats, have championed the climate jobs program.

The bill would also make changes to oil and gas development. It would increase royalty rates and end noncompetitive leasing for energy companies operating on federal lands and establish royalties for hard rock mining.

It would also impose a fee on emissions from methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases. Methane is largely a byproduct of oil and gas development, agriculture and landfills.

The bill is likely to cut more than a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions, Robbie Orvis, the senior director of energy policy design at the nonprofit think tank Energy Innovation, said in an interview last month. The United States must cut 2 gigatons of emissions to reach its commitment under the Paris Climate Agreement.

In a statement Kal Mateo,  of the advocacy group, Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, said the bill “[addresses] pressing environmental threats and [will] begin to tackle generations of systemic racism and environmental inequity by investing billions of dollars removing lead water pipes, cleaning up toxic Superfund sites and creating pathways to good-paying, clean energy careers in underserved communities and communities of color through a new Civilian Conservation Corps.”

Immigration attempts

Included in the $1.85 trillion social package is $100 billion that the Biden administration set aside for immigration policy that would help reduce backlogs, expand legal representation and help with processing at the border.

Democrats have tried to include a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people through the reconciliation package, but were blocked by the Senate parliamentarian from including those provisions.

Immigration advocates also spent this week lobbying Congress to include basic work permits for undocumented essential workers, as well as protections from deportations.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura Olson covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.

John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.