by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Friday, November 19, 2021. Election Day 2022 is 354 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,082 days away.
I’m clicking “send” on this newsletter just minutes after the House voted to approve President Biden’s economic package. Read on for everything you need to know about the House vote on the Build Back Better Act and what comes next for the package.
Bur first, a quick programming note: Now that the House has dispensed with Build Back Better, both chambers of Congress are going on recess next week. I’ll be taking the week off as well, so look for me in your inboxes next on Monday, November 29.
I hope those of you here in the U.S. have a happy Thanksgiving. As every year for the past 10 (!) years, I am thankful for all of you in the WUTP community who continue to read this newsletter and trust me to help keep you informed. It is truly an honor.
Now, onto the news...
House passes Build Back Better bill, advancing Biden’s agenda
After months of failed attempts, stalled negotiations, and Democratic infighting — and a night that featured the longest speech in the chamber’s history — the House voted this morning to pass the Build Back Better Act, the $1.85 trillion social spending bill championed by President Joe Biden.
The bill passed in a 220-213 vote, with exclusively Democratic support. Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME) was the lone Democrat to vote against the package.
What does this mean? This is a major step forward for the Democratic agenda — a key turning point, but far from the end of the road, in the Build Back Better bill’s long and winding path to becoming law.
Why was the bill finally able to pass? Even after passage of Biden’s other main legislative priority (the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package) earlier this month, House moderates had been waiting to give their blessing to Build Back Better until a “score” came from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reporting how much the legislation would cost and how much it would raise in revenue.
The CBO released it report on Thursday, estimating that the package would increase the deficit by $160 billion over the next 10 years. The White House — which promised the bill would be deficit neutral — has pushed back on the nonpartisan office’s findings, claiming that the CBO is underestimating the revenue that will be brought in by a provision that boosts funding for IRS tax enforcement.
While the CBO estimated that the increased IRS enforcement would bring in a net of $207 billion, the White House released its own estimate that said the provision would bring in $400 billion — which would mean the package would actually decrease the deficit by $112 billion.
With the exception of Golden, Democratic deficit hawks accepted the administration’s reasoning, averting the need for last-minute changes to the bill and offering a show of Democratic unity amid a process that has been plagued with divisions.
So why didn’t the bill pass last night? Democratic leaders had been planning to vote on the package Thursday, but their plans got thrown off track one final time by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). The chamber was in the midst of its final “one-minute” speeches before closing off debate on the package — but House leaders, like McCarthy, are able to extend their “one-minute” talks for as long as they want, something that’s known as the “magic minute.”
McCarthy’s “magic minute” ended up lasting eight hours and 32 minutes. The GOP leader starting speaking at around 8:30 p.m. Just after midnight, Democrats announced that the vote would be pushed to the next morning — but McCarthy kept going until after 5 a.m., breaking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2018 record for the longest floor speech in House history.
The Republican leader touched on a wide range of topics in his 8+ hours — “everything from his desire to own a Tesla to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination to the Los Angeles police department,” as Politico put it — while also railing against the sweeping package Democrats were trying to pass.
“I know some of you are mad at me, think I spoke too long,” McCarthy said at one point. “But I’ve had enough. America has had enough.”
Wait, what’s in this bill again? I’m glad you asked! Every time I report on a big legislative package, I always try to offer a refresher on what’s actually in the bill, to make sure reporting on the process doesn’t distract from the substantive details. So I know we’ve gone over this before, but I think it’s important to go through the bill’s contents once again — especially since there is a lot of consequential provisions embedded in its 2,468 pages.
The Build Back Better Act is essentially a hodge-podge of the Democratic Party’s main domestic priorities. Although it has been shrunken down from its original $3.5 trillion size, the measure would still make some fairly sweeping expansions to the government’s role in American life. Here are some of its key provisions:
- Establishes universal and free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds
- Makes the largest investment in combatting climate change in U.S. history, mainly through tax credits for solar panels, electric vehicles, and other clean energy products
- Offers four weeks of paid family and medical to all workers
- Expands Medicare to cover hearing benefits for seniors
- Allows the government to negotiate some prescription drug prices for the first time, although it will only apply to a certain class of expensive drugs
- Extends the expanded Child Tax Credit (which offers monthly payments to parents of nearly 90% of American children) for one year
- Strengthens Obamacare by reducing health care premiums for some middle-class Americans and by expanding Medicaid in states that have yet to do so
- Grants protection from deportation for the next five years to undocumented immigrants who have been living in the U.S. since 2011
- Makes additional investments in child care, elder care, public housing, and higher education
The package is paid for by a slew of tax changes, including:
- A 15% minimum tax on corporate profits of corporations with over $1 billion in profits and a separate 15% minimum tax on foreign profits of U.S. corporations
- A 5% surtax on wealthy Americans’ personal income above $10 million and an additional 3% surtax on income above $25 million
- Increased funding for IRS enforcement in an attempt to close the “tax gap,” the divide between how much Americans pay in taxes and how much they owe
What happens next? The Build Back Better Act is not done yet, not by a long shot. The package now goes to the Senate, where it could face changes from a few key actors.
Democrats are passing the package using the reconciliation process, which makes the bill filibuster-proof in the Senate (meaning it can advance with only Democratic support, instead of needing 10 Republican votes as well). However, that comes with certain restrictions: the process is governed by the Byrd rule, which requires that every provision in a reconciliation bill has a more than “merely incidental” impact on the federal budget.
It is up to Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough to decide what can stay in the package, a process known — no kidding — as the “Byrd bath.” There are a few provisions MacDonough could strip out, most notably the measure’s immigration changes.
Beyond the parliamentarian, there are a few parts of the package still being debated by Democratic senators: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), for example, opposes the paid leave provision, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) objects to a repeal of the Trump-era cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction, a benefit which mainly helps wealthy Americans by allowing them to deduct certain taxes paid to state and local governments from their federal tax bills.
Between changes sought by MacDonough, Manchin, Sanders, and possibly others, the package that ends up going through the Senate — assuming Democrats are able to settle on a consensus measure — is likely to look fairly different than the one that passed the House today. If that’s the case, the revised package will have to go back to the House after passing the Senate and be approved by the lower chamber once again. Only then will the legislation go to President Biden’s desk.
So Democrats are in for several more weeks (at the very least) of negotiations over Build Back Better. And then, of course, the party will have to sell the package to an electorate that remains largely unaware of what is in the package — and continues to give Biden dismal approval ratings even after his other main legislative priority, the infrastructure package, made its way through Congress.
What else you should know
→ Booster shots. “The Food and Drug Administration on Friday authorized booster shots of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for everyone 18 and older, opening up eligibility to tens of millions more fully vaccinated adults.” New York Times
→ Debt ceiling talks. “The two top leaders in the Senate have opened discussions to find a way out of a looming debt crisis, a sharp departure from the standoff a month ago that took the United States to the brink of a first-ever default.” CNN
→ Another Democratic retirement. “Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) said Thursday he will not seek re-election in 2022, making him the third Democratic member of Congress this week to announce retirement plans.” NBC News
→ Turnover in the VP’s office. “The communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris has resigned amid a sharp decline in Harris's approval ratings.” Washington Examiner
One more thing...
America will have its first female president today. Kind of.
Let me explain: As of this writing, President Biden is at Walter Reed Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a routine physical. According to the White House, while at Walter Reed, Biden will also undergo a routine colonoscopy.
Just as then-President George W. Bush did when he underwent colonoscopies in 2002 and 2007, Biden will follow the procedures set out by the 25th Amendment to temporarily transfer power to Vice President Kamala Harris.
Harris will serve as “Acting President” during Biden’s procedure, making her the first woman to formally carry out the duties of the presidency. According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, Harris will spend the time working out of her office in the West Wing.
She will be the third “Acting President” since the 25th Amendment was adopted in 1967: then-Vice President Dick Cheney temporarily served as Commander-in-Chief during Bush’s colonoscopies, while then-Vice President George H.W. Bush acted in the post while Ronald Reagan underwent colon cancer surgery in 1985.
Biden is undergoing the physical and colonoscopy one day before his 79th birthday, which is Saturday. He is the oldest president in U.S. history.
All times Eastern.
→ President Joe Biden will pardon the National Thanksgiving Turkey at 3:15 p.m., continuing a tradition that supposedly has its roots with Abraham Lincoln but has been formally continued by every president since George H.W. Bush. Every year since 1989, the president has offered clemency two birds, the National Thanksgiving Turkey and an alternate. This year, the two turkeys are named “Peanut Butter” and “Jelly.”
At 6:20 p.m., Biden will depart the White House for Wilmington, Delaware, where he will spend the weekend. Biden will arrive in Wilmington at 7:15 p.m.
→ Vice President Kamala Harris will depart Washington, D.C., for Columbus, Ohio, at 12:50 p.m. Once she arrives, at 2:50 p.m., she will tour Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 189 and meet apprentices with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. At 3:20 p.m., Harris and Walsh will deliver remarks on the bipartisan infrastructure package. At 5:30 p.m., the vice president will return to Washington.
→ White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 1 p.m.
→ The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. and resume consideration of H.R. 4350, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021. The chamber is expected to hold only one vote today: a voice vote on the motion to proceed to the NDAA, which is the annual bill setting policy and funding levels for the Department of Defense.
→ The House convened at 8 a.m. and then voted on H.R. 5376, the Build Back Better Act.
→ The Supreme Court justices will meet for their weekly conference.