$1.75 trillion for Biden's agenda is a lot, but is it enough?

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Biden on Thursday unveiled a framework for a $1.75 trillion Build Back Better domestic spending plan, a major step in the effort to turn his signature legislative goal into reality.

In a speech promoting the plan, Biden said it represents “historic investments in our nation and in our people.” There’s truth to that claim. The bill includes $555 billion to combat climate change, which would be by far the most substantial climate investment ever made by the federal government. It would also establish a nationwide universal preschool program, provide money to help families cover the cost of child care, extend the new Child Tax Credit, expand Medicaid, add hearing to Medicare coverage, fund housing assistance programs, and improve access to long-term care for seniors.

As unprecedented as some of this spending would be, much attention has gone to what was taken out of Democrats’ original $3.5 trillion proposal — largely thanks to resistance from moderate Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Items that have been removed include a federal clean standard, paid family leave, dental and vision coverage for Medicare, free community college, an increase in the corporate tax rate, and a measure that would have allowed Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.

Negotiations over the plan are reportedly still in full swing, meaning the details of what’s included and left out may change before a final deal is reached — if one is reached at all.

Why there’s debate

In its current form, Build Back Better would be one of the most substantial pieces of legislation passed by Congress in decades. But the trillion-dollar gap between the original proposal and the latest framework has led to disagreement over which is more significant: What’s in the bill or what has been cut out?

Those with an optimistic view argue that, despite the many substantial cuts, the bill still represents an extraordinary investment that will benefit countless Americans. There’s particular hope that the plan’s massive spending on climate change — which some argue is the only issue that truly matters — could shift the U.S. economy toward a green energy future. Others say even the pared-down social spending in the bill will be transformative for millions, especially struggling families and seniors.

Critics on the left say the proposal simply isn’t big enough to meet the country’s many critical needs. Many progressives argue that moderates’ unwillingness to raise taxes on the rich and wealthy corporations put an unnecessary limit on the scope of the plan, causing important policies to either be cut so much they won’t be effective or jettisoned entirely. There are also concerns that it doesn’t go far enough to meaningfully address climate change without a clean energy standard or substantially more spending.

Conservative commentators, for their part, mostly consider the Build Back Better to be a mixed bag. On one hand, they largely believe that even the smaller version of the bill is a mess of government handouts and taxation. On the other, there’s a general sense of relief that it’s not even bigger.

What’s next

It’s still unclear whether the various factions of the Democratic caucus will support the proposal. If those votes are secured in the coming days, it would also clear the way for Biden’s other major spending plan — a $1-trillion bipartisan bill focused on physical infrastructure — to become law as well.

Perspectives

Optimists

Despite the cuts, the bill is still enormous

“I think it’s fair to say many of the compromises along the way are going to make the legislation both materially and politically worse and less popular. But it also is the case that a $1.75 trillion package is a lot.” — Chris Hayes, MSNBC

It would be a mistake to overlook the all the great things in the bill

“Democrats have the chance to pass and sign into law transformational investments in the nation’s human and physical infrastructure. They should go ahead and get it done — and then they should stop focusing on what had to be left out of these spending packages and begin loudly celebrating all that is included.” — Eugene Robinson, Washington Post

It’s remarkable how much Democrats have accomplished with zero room for error

“All of these reforms come on top of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. … Taken together — including a few hundred billion dollars of public investment in domestic infrastructure and manufacturing across Biden’s bipartisan bills — and you have a pretty solid haul for a Democratic trifecta that barely exists.” — Eric Levitz, New York

A trimmed-down bill is a better fit for the current economic situation

“The U.S. economy has changed dramatically in the last nine months — and so have the political and policy implications of the Build Back Better plan. Viewed in this context, Sinema and Manchin aren’t stifling the Democratic agenda so much as saving it from overreach. For that, Democrats should be grateful.” — Karl W. Smith, Bloomberg

The bill’s climate spending makes up for its other shortcomings

“While details continue to emerge and negotiations are ongoing, it seems we’re ending up with a shockingly good climate bill attached to a somewhat depressing everything else bill.” — Jordan Weissman, Slate

Conservatives can take some solace that the bill has shrunk substantially

“From a conservative standpoint, nothing good was ever going to come out of a massive reconciliation bill passed by President Biden and congressional Democrats. All along, the only question was how bad the final legislation was going to be.” — Philip Klein, National Review

Critics

Democrats are making a huge political mistake by cutting down the bill

“More than a decade ago, in the early stages of Barack Obama’s presidency, progressives were repeatedly told that they had to compromise and accept a less ambitious response to the Great Recession than Obama had proposed and that most Democrats wanted. Ultimately, they settled for a smaller package because they were told it was necessary to act quickly. But the quick action proved insufficient and uninspiring to voters the following election.” — John Nichols, The Nation

The climate provisions are good, but not nearly enough

“​​The $500 billion Democrats have promised for climate funding would represent historic congressional investment, and roughly a third of the funding in the possible Build Back Better plan. But it still would not make up for the policies that have been cut.” — Rebecca Leber, Vox

The messy negotiation process over the bill will drastically limit its impact

“Last-minute, closed-door haggling is a hallmark of Washington and unique neither to the Democratic Party nor to Biden. … But it’s nobody’s idea of good government, and the rushed compromise raises the risk that Biden’s supposedly transformative legislation will have a far shorter legacy than its supporters would like and its considerable price tag would suggest.” — Russell Berman, Atlantic

The social programs in the bill have been pared down too much

“In the end, I don’t see how you can say this meets the test of simple, permanent, and meaningful. Almost nothing is permanent.” — David Dayen, American Prospect

Leaving out paid leave is inexcusable

“One might think, following a tragedy of unimaginable scale, that there would be political will to provide some assistance to people to allow them to weather the unexpected without ruining their lives. But even under the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, the congresspeople who work far less than most Americans … have declined to offer their constituents the most basic and widespread form of state support.” — Molly Osberg, New Republic

Even the smaller version of the bill is way too much

“The blueprint the White House released is more frame than work. The jerry-rigged plan is an enormous expansion of government with quarter-baked entitlement programs that will retard work and $1.85 trillion in tax increases that will distort and limit investment.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

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Photo credit: Evan Vucci/AP

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