Two principal questions swirling around President Joe Biden’s budget bill highlight the problem: beyond a number, it’s hard to describe exactly what it is.
The question of cost has dominated debate so far. Biden and congressional Democratic leaders want $3.5 trillion over 10 years, and are asking intra-party critics to specify what lesser amount they’ll accept.
“We’ve not gotten a number” from the Senate, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas told CNN last week.
“We just need to get a number, right?” added Rep. Ro Khanna of California.
Holdout Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia says Biden asked him the same thing: “He just basically said, ‘Find a number you’re comfortable with.’” By week’s end, Manchin kicked negotiations into high gear by calling $1.5 trillion his “number.”
But that only underscores the second question: What do you call the contents of a sprawling bill covering priorities that range from child care to climate change?
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Biden aides and Democratic leaders have employed a variety of labels, from the “American Families Plan” to “Build Back Better” to the “human infrastructure” package. Media commentators variously describe the bill as about the “safety net,” “social benefits,” “climate and economic policy” or, most obscurely of all, “reconciliation,” which refers to the budget procedure Democrats are using to advance it.
The problem of squishy definition makes the bill harder for Democrats to promote – and easier for Republicans to attack. Lacking a singular focus like such transformative forebears as the Affordable Care Act or Medicare, it has become known mostly by its digits.
“This is so broad in its scope, there are so many elements, that it doesn’t really have an identity other than its price tag,” said David Axelrod, a former strategist for President Barack Obama and now a CNN senior political commentator. “It becomes a big blob…a plaid jacket.”
The bill’s 2,465 pages overflow with popular policy proposals, from universal preschool to free community college to expanded Medicare benefits to energy efficiency tax credits to expanded child tax credits. Its proposed tax increases for corporations and wealthy individuals also draw strong public affirmation in public opinion polls.
But none of those programs are dominant enough to create a clear public image that focuses popular and legislative support. Instead of creating a signature new government program, it expands a dizzying array of existing programs to provide more generous benefits to more people.
The scattershot approach reflects a practical White House response to pent-up demand among Democratic constituencies stymied for the last decade in their attempts to address income inequality, stagnant wages, health coverage gaps and the warming of the planet due to carbon emissions. The consequence: instead of discussion revolving around the new benefits American families would receive or the impact of climate provisions, it’s centered on the number of dollars that would flow out of the Treasury Department to finance those benefits over the next 10 years.
A messaging gift for the GOP
The framing around cost has proven particularly useful for Republican adversaries, who for years have branded Democratic programs as the leading edge of socialism. It helps them underscore fears of rising inflation and debt, while arguing that expanded benefits erode American traditions of individual initiative and free enterprise.
“The $3.5 trillion Biden plan isn’t socialism, it’s marxism,” GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted last week.
Biden has tried to fend off such attacks by negating the price tag of the social spending bill altogether. Because his tax-hike proposals would cover his spending proposals, Biden tweeted late last month, “My Build Back Better Agenda costs zero dollars.”
That hasn’t quieted the dialogue that uses numbers to measure the divide between Democratic moderates and progressives. White House officials hope different factions may end up satisfying themselves by embracing different calculations – reflecting different views of, for example, whether spending totals should include tax cuts that decrease government revenues.
“You may wind up with a bill that one person describes as $1.5 trillion and another describes as $2.5 trillion,” a senior administration official told CNN. “There are many ways to skin the topline debate.”
Visiting Capitol Hill to rally Democrats late last week, Biden tried anew to shift the focus. He urged reluctant lawmakers to consider his specific objectives of helping struggling families get ahead economically while addressing the global crisis of climate change.
“He’s not talking numbers,” Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “He’s talking, ‘Tell me what you’re for. Tell me what the programs are that mean the most to the constituents that you represent’…We shouldn’t be talking the numbers.”