Biden pitch divides Michigan lawmakers: Democrats embrace, GOP wary

Washington — Nearly 100 days into his term, President Joe Biden laid out a sweeping plan Wednesday to alter the social safety net, a legislative proposal that Michigan lawmakers in Congress gave mixed reviews, with one Republican calling it "pipe-dream spending."

Biden highlighted the $1.8 trillion proposal during his first joint address to Congress, a scaled-down affair with only about 200 people in the House chamber instead of the usual 1,600 due to the ongoing pandemic. 

Only three Michigan members attended in person, all Democrats: Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Reps. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn and Brenda Lawrence of Southfield. 

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., applaud.

The American Families Plan that Biden pitched would extend the beefed-up child tax credit through 2025, provide direct support to families for child care, create a national paid family and medical leave for workers, and provide free community college and universal pre-kindergarten.

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"In America, we never, ever, ever stay down. Americans always get up. Today, that's what we're doing. America is rising anew," Biden told the pared down gathering of members of Congress.

"My fellow Americans, we have to not just show we're back, but we're back to stay."

The White House said the proposal would be paid for by increasing the amount of taxes paid by the wealthy and investors, including roughly doubling the capital gains tax rate for those making over $1 million a year. Biden defended that approach Wednesday.

"Trickle down economics has never worked. It's time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out," he said. 

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D- Mich., looks at paper put on seats for social distancing as she waits in her seat ahead of President Joe Biden speaking to a joint session of Congress, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

After passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan earlier this year, this latest proposal for "human" infrastructure faces major hurdles to passage in a narrowly divided Congress, with Republicans already balking at the massive scope of the administration's third spending plan.

Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, said he has the same frustrations with the latest plan as he did with Biden's proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan earlier this spring — a very large number without much clarity on how it's going to be spent or what it aims to achieve.

"We're seeing the same thing with a lot of potentially very positive (policy), if done right, but you're really stretching the definition of infrastructure beyond any kind of logical sensibility," said Meijer, a freshman lawmaker.

Some of the proposed ideas, he said, could find some bipartisan support in standalone bills if done in a "sensible" way. 

"The concern I still have is we're hearing a lot about a big number and a broad thing that it's going towards, as we are just racking up trillions of dollars of spending without necessarily justifying the amount or having any assurance on what outcome is being pursued," Meijer said. 

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"That really opens the door for tremendous amounts of fraud, waste, abuse and, frankly, corruption."

Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, said Wednesday's speech was tailored more to the Democratic base than to Republicans or even moderates of his own party — a group he’ll need on board if he’s to pass either of the packages without GOP support.

“He certainly gave a valiant effort to try in order to try to increase unity, outreach to Republicans in Congress — calling out Mitch McConnell specifically and praising him I think was smart,” Kall said, referring to the GOP Senate minority leader.

“But on certain issues and things like gun control … it seems unlikely for a lot of things that can’t be done through reconciliation for him to be able to get over 60 votes.”

While Biden calls for bipartisanship on the proposals outlined Thursday, “I don’t think he’s expecting the kind of response and action that he desires.”

Some progressive lawmakers like U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said the president's proposal falls short of the "bold" and more aggressive policies needed to swiftly transform the system and move families out of generational poverty.

"I see a lot of working familiesbenefiting from the Biden administration and Congress' efforts so far, but we know we need more bold policies that move with the same sense of urgency that our residents are all wanting. We need to be able to work quicker," she said.

"We want to, again, to move with something much more sustainable than the constant one-time stimuluses payments or one-time child tax credit. We need to see something that's much more long term."

She praised the inclusion of paid leave for workers and other elements of the plan, but wished Biden's plan had more specifics on addressing the high cost of prescription drugs or lowering the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 55.

When the legislation is crafted in the House, she's looking to include her bill that would provide recurrent direct relief payments to Americans during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as for a year after it ends.

"Economic relief for our residents needs to be long term. Poverty doesn’t just disappear with a single shot of money like that," she said. 

"I can foresee years and also generational poverty impacted if we don't become much more aggressive and bold. If we look at this, not as a five-year plan like for a company, but as, what is the long-term plan in combating poverty in our country? Because it existed prior of the pandemic; it just got worse."

Lawrence, who watched Biden's speech from the House gallery, said the joint session was very different than past addresses — "information intense," calm, and not as electrifying with so few people in the chamber.

"The education piece just really moved me. If you think about how 100 years ago, we started K-12 education, and now here we are a century later, finally talking about universal pre-K and free community college," Lawrence said. 

"The world has caught up to us and in some cases bypassing us. If we truly want to be America first we should be educating our young people first."

Lawrence, who co-chairs the bipartisan Women's Caucus, echoed Biden's call to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and for bipartisanship. "That means each of us doing our part," she said. "It was a president that wasn’t pointing fingers. He was very adamant about our challenges." 

Dingell called Wednesday's address "refreshing," but said she intends to push for more health care measures, including expanding Medicare, to be included when the package of legislation is in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

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"I’m not willing to take baby steps anymore on health care. We need to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and when someone needs to go to the doctor, they need to go," she said. "When seniors need to go the dentist, they need to go, and Medicare doesn’t cover that now."

But Dingell was warm to the proposal overall, saying that "everything being addressed is critical." She emphasized the nutrition elements of the plan that would provide assistance to needy families and expand access to meals for students.

"The thing that probably has rattled me the most in the last year, is the amount of hunger in our communities where people don't know it exists," Dingell said. 

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Holland Republican, said there's an opportunity for common ground on some of the policy areas that Biden's families plan targets, but he has low expectations that the White House will reach across the aisle to work with the GOP, based on Biden's first 100 days in office.

U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, at left, and Rep. Bill Huizenga chat with members of the Michigan National Guard during a food drop across from the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

"The areas where there’s the potential for agreement, there’s been a dearth of cooperation," Huizenga said.

"Joe Biden ran as the 'Great Unifier'? Give me a break. It’s been anything but that so far. And now we’re all supposed to come together, whether it's infrastructure or this new spending?" 

He lamented the exponential spending so far under Biden, saying what's been pushed through Congress by Democrats this year already is 150% more than would normally be spent in a typical year, "and there's no discussion about priorities, making it temporary or making it targeted," Huizenga said.

"That's what one of my fears, whether it's the child tax credit or some of these other things that that can have a significant impact — we've got to sharpen up what the target is here," he added. 

"When your only answer is, let’s add another zero, that’s not a formula for success in my mind. No, I’m not very optimistic about what this is going to look like."

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said there appears to be trillions still in the pipeline from COVID-19 relief packages the Congress already passed.

"We shouldn’t be proposing trillions more in pipe-dream spending that will either dramatically increase the national debt or raise taxes on small business and families," Upton said in a statement. 

"We should follow the path that President Biden himself outlined in his inaugural address calling for bipartisanship and cooperation, which are sorely needed as we begin the discussion on an infrastructure bill."

It's unclear whether Democrats will plan to break the package down into individual bills or attempt to pass it as one bill in its entirety.

The latter would almost surely require the use of the budget reconciliation process, a measure that would allow Democrats to pass the bill in the 50-50 Senate without getting the 10 Republican votes needed to break a filibuster (Vice President Kamala Harris would be the tie-breaking vote). 

"We certainly we hope that we can build bipartisan support for legislation," said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. "I always think the best solutions are always achieved if we can bring people together to work in a good-faith way."

Chairman Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., speaks during a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hybrid nominations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 22, 2021, to consider the nominees for Postal Service Governors.

The proposed ways to pay for the massive bill are aimed "the very top of the income scale," Peters said. 

"In fact, not just the 1% but even a smaller group. For example, raising the capital gains tax on individuals who make over $1 million a year — certainly, folks who are making over a million dollars a year are doing very well, but they can also pay their fair share of taxes," he said.

"Because many of those folks rely on investment income, they're actually paying lower taxes than most families in our state. I think we need to make sure the tax system is fair, and it's fair for everybody, including those at the very top of the income scale."

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