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Littwin: Now that Biden’s big climate and safety-net bill has passed the House, shouldn’t we discuss what’s in it?

Don’t count on much of a deep dive. Most of what we’ll hear will be limited to whatever Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema say they’ll vote for.

Kevin McCarthy’s record-breaking, marathon speech — a paean to the art of saying very little, but at great length, apparently designed to impress Donald Trump, who almost certainly wasn’t listening — is finally over. And House Democrats have stopped squabbling long enough — you knew Nancy Pelosi would pull it off — to present a united front.

And so, Joe Biden’s massive climate and safety-net plan has passed the House, if barely. 

So now, I guess, we can safely concentrate on what’s actually in the bill — which few people seem to know — and leave politics behind, at least for a few moments, before the Senate starts its painful-to-watch forced march to a vote.

Mike Littwin

OK, just kidding. No one is going to really talk about the bill. Have you ever watched cable TV news lately?

The big issue now is not whether the $1.85 trillion (or so) bill would make inflation worse. And please remember, when considering the bill, that all these numbers are over 10 years. It’s still a lot of money, but not as much as some would have you believe.

And it’s not whether enough (or too much, as a few Dems actually say) is being spent on climate-change legislation. And it’s not whether it’s finally time we joined our peer nations in passing a paid family-leave program, even if it’s only for four weeks. And it’s not whether the limiting of the child-tax-credit expansion to one year will prove to be a huge mistake. And it’s not whether universal pre-K is a good idea. And it’s not whether the package sufficiently addresses affordable housing. And it’s not whether we should lower costs on Obamacare plans and/or on drug prices while expanding Medicare. 

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And it’s not whether the unwieldy Build Back Better name for the legislation doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue like, say, the Great Society or the New Deal. And by the way, whatever you hear about the bill being transformational — even though that’s probably a fair assessment — it’s not quite as transformational as either the Great Society or New Deal.

No, the main issue that we’ll be discussing over the next five weeks — if Chuck  Schumer’s plan for a vote by Christmas is actually possible — is what parts of the bill Joe Manchin will accept. And, to a lesser degree, what it is that mostly-silent-on-the-issues Kyrsten Sinema wants.

The insiders say that Sinema will almost certainly come around eventually and that Manchin will probably milk his moment, as the most powerful person in Washington, for everything he can. I’m ready to bet that some bill will pass. I’m also ready to bet that many parts of the House bill won’t. 

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The problem, of course, is that for the bill to pass under reconciliation, Democrats need all 50 of their senators to vote for it, with Kamala Harris’ tie breaker as the winning vote. No Republican is expected to support it. One Democrat can sink it. And Manchin is apparently unafraid of being that one person.

Sinema is facing pressure from Democrats in her state of Arizona and would likely be primaried were she to vote against the bill. There aren’t enough Democrats in West Virginia, which voted for Trump by nearly 40 points, to make any difference. That’s why Manchin can do what he wants, and there’s very little that Democrats can do other than, well, beg. Michael Bennet has already admitted to begging Manchin to leave the expanded child-tax-credit part of the bill as is. 

There will be a lot more unseemly begging to come, with Biden presumably as Beggar in Chief.

This is a bill that would poll very well if anyone knew what was in it. The individual parts almost all poll well, but see how many aspects of the bill your neighbor — that is, if you still talk to your neighbor — can name. 

There are reasons, I guess, why Democrats have done such a poor job broadcasting what’s actually in the bill, just as they did with the related infrastructure bill. One was that, until just a few days ago, there wasn’t an actual bill. For a long while, Bennet, a key player in promoting expansion of the poverty-cutting child tax credit, hoped he could campaign on a five-year extension. Instead, he has to campaign on a one-year expansion with the promise — hope? — that there will be enough Republicans, in the long term, who won’t want to kill the program.

If you have forgotten what’s in the expanded child-tax credit— which is currently law, on another one-year basis — the program provides a $300 monthly cash payment for every child under six and $250 monthly for every child ages 6 to 17. 

The key part of the present bill, though, is that those who wouldn’t qualify for the old child tax credit — because they didn’t make enough money — would remain eligible for whatever credit there is. The present bill reduces child poverty at something close to 45%. Which is very close to half, which would be a monumental change, truly transformational.

OK, now that I’ve already begun, I might as well just break the rule and actually discuss some of the highlights of the bill. There’s $550 billion for climate change, which isn’t nearly enough and probably won’t get Biden to his goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030. It’s got money, in tax credits, for solar panels and electric vehicles. It’s got incentives for technological advances in clean energy. 

There’s a Civilian Climate Corps, which will give a lot of jobs to climate fighters for stuff like building back better forests. The $550 billion would be significantly larger except that coal baron Manchin has already forced Democrats to take a John-Henry-like, steel-driving hammer to it. For example, I don’t know if Manchin is a methane baron, but he apparently opposes the fees for the use of methane, which is a major pollutant.

We’ll take a quick look at the $200 billion for four weeks of paid leave, which would be used, for the most part, for taking care of newborns or illnesses in the family. The program, set to start in 2024, would give workers a percentage of their income, with low-paid workers getting the highest percentage. Fewer than a quarter of American workers have a paid leave program now. And, apparently, there won’t be many more because this provision is, we’re told, a non-starter for Manchin. So, you say hello. Manchin says goodbye.

There’s $400 billion for universal preschool for 3 and 4 year olds (and maybe they’d be eligible for COVID vaccines by the time the bill would go into effect), which is an education bill and also a child care bill. Everyone knows how expensive child care is, and there’s general agreement on the benefits for early schooling, particularly for disadvantaged youth. I don’t think there’s much debate about this on the Democratic side.

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I don’t think there’s too much debate on the Democratic side, either, on the money going toward affordable housing and for affordable home care. This stuff is smack in the Democratic wheelhouse. There’s a huge backlog on the Medicaid front for in-home health care. There’s $150 billion. And anyone who follows the housing market understands the need for more affordable housing in both the rental and the home-purchase markets. There are more than 500,000 homeless people in America, and according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a majority of low-income families spend more than half their income on housing.

Part of the reason why the bill’s price tag had to be cut was that Sinema insisted on cutting some of the new taxes on the rich that would pay for the bill. Biden says the bill will pay for itself. The CBO score said it would cost something like $367 billion over 10 years, which, in the end, didn’t count the money Biden claims the IRS can raise with tougher enforcement and didn’t cause any of the moderates on the House side to blink. 

But there is a part of the bill that Republicans have attacked, and Bernie Sanders has attacked, and I assume some other senators will object to (Bennet has loudly registered his objection) — and that is the significant rise in the cap on tax deductions for state and local taxes (known as SALT) on federal tax returns. The cap would go from $10,000 to $80,000, which is a huge gift, worth more than $200 billion, to mostly high-wage earners in high-tax blue states. Republicans, who limited the cap in 2017 as part of Trump’s tax giveaway to the rich and as a direct slap at blue state voters, are now crowing about Democratic hypocrisy. The problem is, they’re right. As Sanders said, it’s bad policy and it’s bad politics.

My guess — hope — is that the raise to the cap, if it survives at all, will be greatly diminished. It’s certainly a fair political point to argue.

Which I guess we can resolve simply by finding out what Joe Manchin has to say about it.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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