President Biden pushes trillion dollar spending bills for 'a rising America'

Howell — President Joe Biden pushed Tuesday to revive momentum for his legislative agenda during a stop in Michigan, pledging to pass two trillion-dollar spending bills that he says will create a "rising America."

The first-term Democratic president was visiting an Operating Engineers training facility in Howell as he tried to gain support for a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and an additional multitrillion-dollar bill, which he described as focused on "human infrastructure," being considered on Capitol Hill. The larger bill would invest in child care, housing, higher education, pre-kindergarten education and combating climate change.

"These bills are not about left versus right or moderate versus progressive or anything that pits Americans against one another," Biden said. "These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency. They’re about opportunity versus decay. They’re about leading the world or continuing to let the world pass us by, which is literally happening."

The president said the country was at an "inflection point," and opponents of the legislation would be "complicit in America’s decline." He described the proposals as essential to improving "economic competition" with other countries.

The United States has "taken our foot off the gas," Biden said, and other nations are "closing the gap in a big way."

Michigan Governor Gretchen shares a moment with President Joe Biden and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 324 in Howell on Tuesday, October 5, 2021.

The speech was a call to action from the president in a swing U.S. House district located in a battleground state. Hundreds of protesters gathered near where the address occurred and focused on the high level of spending his proposals would require. One sign read, "Build Back Broke," playing on Biden's "Build Back Better" slogan.

"Our children and our grandchildren are going to be in debt for basically eternity now,” said Meghan Reckling, chairwoman of the Livingston County Republican Party.

Biden spoke outside at Local 324 of the International Union of Operating Engineers' Construction Career Center about the infrastructure bill and his Build Back Better agenda. About 40 people, including Democratic members of Michigan's U.S. House delegation, sat outside the training facility for the president's address.

In the front row were U.S. Reps. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township, Debbie Dingell of Dearborn and Dan Kildee of Flint Township. A large American flag hung from a crane in the background as Biden spoke. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist were also in attendance.

Whitmer, Michigan's Democratic governor, urged members of Congress to work together to pass the spending proposals. She described them as "bold legislation" that uplifts working people.

"We can do this. We will do this together," Whitmer said.

Biden mentioned recent severe flooding in Metro Detroit as he touted his infrastructure proposal's $50 billion spending to combat the impacts of climate change. He also emphasized that funding in the pending social services and climate legislation would cut child care costs for more than half of most low- and middle-income Michigan residents. Biden said the country needs to prepare for 10 years down the line and the wealthy must pay their "fair share."

"All of it would be one-half of 1% of our economy each year, and it's all paid for, and they don't increase the debt, because they're paid for by asking the very wealthy to begin paying their fair share," he said.

Agenda at a crossroads

Biden's visit came as the fate of his agenda has stalled. The moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party are at odds over what to include and how much to spend in the social services and climate legislation, which will need unanimous support in the caucus to pass the evenly divided Senate and have Vice President Kamala Harris cast a tie-breaking vote.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill would spend money on the nation's roads, bridges, public transit, broadband internet and more. The social and climate policy bill, initially estimated at $3.5 trillion, would overhaul the social safety net by expanding paid leave, child care programs, child tax credits and Medicare coverage, among other priorities. It would be paid for in part by tax increases on wealthy Americans and corporations. 

Republicans have argued that the cost is too high and the proposed tax increases would hurt economic growth.

Democrats are working to draw on board the party's centrists, who insist the bill's $3.5 trillion top line figure is too high, while retaining support from the party's left wing, which would like the package to be bigger and already considers the proposal a compromise.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, a moderate who represents Howell in the House, introduced Biden on Tuesday. Biden understands that if the nation is going to make the proposed investments, lawmakers have to be able to pay for them, she said.

“He was generous enough to give me a ride from the airport, and we talked a lot about the fact that we’re not going to take this bill and pass on more debt to our kids," Slotkin said. "And we are not going to pay for this bill on the backs of working families. We are not going to do that.”

Biden on Friday urged the party not to decouple the two bills. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said Monday the party now plans to pass both plans before the end of October, when funding for major transportation programs runs out.

GOP strikes back

Hundreds of demonstrators, mostly Republicans, were gathered along the highway about a mile from the location of the president's speech by 1 p.m. Some held derogatory signs criticizing Biden while others claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged.

Former President Donald Trump, the GOP candidate last year, lost to Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points in Michigan. He has maintained that fraud cost him the election, but the result has been upheld by dozens of audits, court rulings and an investigation by the Republican-controlled state Senate Oversight Committee.

A large blue sign along Michigan 59 in Howell read "TRUMP WON." Sitting near the sign were Jackie and Philip Ludwig, two Livingston County residents and Trump supporters.

"We’re going to support Trump still until he’s put back in," Philip Ludwig said. "So we just want Biden to know we’re not happy with his spending. We're not happy with the way our country’s going and the job he’s performing. And we would like him to step down."

Supporters of former President Donald Trump chant and carry signs in Howell as they wait for the arrival of President Joe Biden on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Jackie said, "Sleepy Joe thinks that this is sleepy little Howell and it’s not."

Livingston County has been a Republican stronghold. Trump won it with 60% of the vote in 2020. However, the county is located in Slotkin's battleground congressional district, which also contains parts of Oakland and Ingham counties. Slotkin was reelected in 2020 by 4 percentage points against Republican Paul Junge.

Junge, who was at the demonstration Tuesday, said he "fully" expects to run again in 2022. A state commission is working to redraw the district lines.

"I continue to believe Elissa Slotkin is not the moderate she said she was," Junge said. "The people of this district are going to see it and vote her out. I intend to be that alternative."

President Joe Biden supporters, left, clashed Tuesday with backers of former President Donald Trump in Livingston County's community of Howell, a county that is traditionally Republican.

Sign of Democrats' struggle

The location of Biden's visit pointed to a Michigan-focused struggle among Democrats. The Operating Engineers have supported a plan by the Canadian company Enbridge to build a tunnel to replace its Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac while many in the Democratic Party have spoken out against the idea.

The Canadian government on Monday formally invoked a 1977 treaty the country's officials say prevents the U.S. government or Michigan from disrupting the operation of Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline, effectively pulling the Biden administration into the dispute over the pipeline's future. 

Biden didn't reference the pipeline during his Tuesday speech.

The Howell visit was Biden's fourth trip to Michigan during his nearly 10 months in office. Trump didn't visit the state for the fourth time until nearly three years into his presidency — in December 2019.

During his 30-minute address, Biden heavily focused on his infrastructure proposals. But he diverged from the theme late in the speech to briefly discuss racial discrimination, saying members of the Ku Klux Klan had marched in Howell in "recent years."

Biden had been seen by political experts as a boon to Democrats heading into an important 2022 election season. But the president's approval ratings have dropped in Michigan and nationwide as the pull-out from Afghanistan, a surge in the delta variant of the coronavirus and ongoing tension over the legislative proposals have hurt public sentiment, according to recent polling.

About 39% of Michigan voters approved of his performance and 53% disapproved, according to an Aug. 31-Sept. 3 survey of 600 registered voters by the Glengariff Group. 

Biden last visited Michigan on July 3 during the Traverse City Cherry Festival, when he toured an Antrim County farm, bought pies, ate ice cream and met with supporters who came out to shake his hand and get photos. He also came to Metro Detroit in mid-May, when he visited the Ford Motor Co. Rouge Electric Vehicle Center to present his $174 billion plan to bolster the burgeoning electric vehicle market.

cmauger@detroitnews.com