HARTFORD, Conn — President Joe Biden on Friday said he would prefer to slash the length of the new and expanded programs in his $3.5 trillion social safety net and climate change legislation, rather than eliminate programs entirely, as Democrats struggle to trim the legislation to win over support from moderates.
His comments in Connecticut, where he worked to reassure progressives on what he hopes will be a landmark piece of his legacy, marked Biden’s clearest comments yet on how he hopes negotiations over the bill will play out. It marked a subtle break with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who earlier this week suggested that most Democrats preferred to focus on establishing a few enduring programs.
“I’m of the view that it’s important to establish the principle on a whole range of issues without guaranteeing to get the whole 10 years,” Biden told reporters before boarding Air Force One to return to Washington. "It matters to establish it.”
“So what happens is, you pass the principle and you build on it,” he added. “You look back and either it works or it doesn’t work.”
Pelosi, in a Monday note to Democratic lawmakers, said, “Overwhelmingly, the guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well.”
Biden earlier had told lawmakers that although he expects the package to shrink, “we're going to come back and get the rest” after it's passed.
“We're not going to get $3.5 trillion. We'll get less than that, but we're gonna get it. And we're going to come back and get the rest,” Biden said during remarks at a child care center in Connecticut.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are working to reduce the sweeping package to about $2 trillion in spending, which would be paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. The proposal includes everything from free child care and community college to dental, vision and hearing aid benefits for seniors and a number of significant provisions meant to combat climate change. They're all key items for progressives, but moderates have balked at the original $3.5 trillion price tag.
With slim margins in the House and the Senate, Democrats have no votes to spare on the bill. The whittling process has sparked concern from some progressives.
Biden has openly acknowledged the price tag will have to come down. On Friday, he visited a child development center in Hartford to speak about a need for investments in child care and other social safety net programs, arguing they're imperative to keep America competitive in the global economy.
At the center, Biden promoted his proposal to make such care free for lower-income families, and ensure that families making up to 150% of their state's median income pay less than 7% of their salaries on child care. It's part of a massive expansion of the social safety net that Biden has championed and is aiming to pass with just Democratic votes in Congress.
“Too many folks in Washington still don’t realize it isn’t enough just to invest in our physical infrastructure. We also have to invest in our people,” he said.
Biden went on to outline how his plan would reduce child care costs for Connecticut residents, and noted the disparity between U.S. spending on early child care versus greater investments by other countries.
“How can we compete in the world if millions of American parents, especially moms, can't be part of the workforce because they can't afford the cost of child care or eldercare?”
He briefly greeted some of the children at the center's playground, at one point kneeling to give a child a hug.
The president's sales pitch comes as his Democratic allies have raised concerns that the American public does not understand the benefits of his package. There is renewed urgency among Democrats to push it through ahead of an end-of-month deadline on transportation funding, Biden's upcoming foreign trip, and a closer-than-anticipated race for Virginia's next governor.
Talks between the White House and members of Congress continue, working to reach consensus both on the total spending level for the legislation and what particular programs should be included. Objections by centrist Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are forcing Democrats to shrink the package.
The fate of the legislation, branded “Build Back Better" by Biden, is also holding up a more than $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate this summer. House progressives are balking at supporting that roads-and-bridges bill until agreement is reached on a path forward for the social safety net package.
In an interview this week with The Associated Press, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for Virginia governor, criticized Democrats including Biden over the lack of progress.
“They all got to get their act together and vote,” McAuliffe said. Asked specifically if he was calling out Biden, McAuliffe said, “I put everybody there.” McAuliffe is in a tight race with Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin in a state Biden carried by 10 points last fall.
Biden also delivered remarks later at the dedication of the Dodd Center for Human Rights at the University of Connecticut, which is being renamed to honor a longtime friend, former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, and Dodd's father, also a former senator.
Biden said that U.S. efforts to defend human rights around the world are “stronger because we recognize our own historic challenges as part of that same fight.” He added that leading by example requires efforts to advance equity, promote justice and ”defend the sacred right to vote in free, fair and secure elections.”