US House advances Biden's historic social welfare expansion

US House advances Biden's historic social welfare expansion

US President Joe Biden, pictured at the White House on November 18, 2021, has seen his infrastructure victory lap overshadowed by inflation worries
US President Joe Biden, pictured at the White House on November 18, 2021, has seen his infrastructure victory lap overshadowed by inflation worries

WASHINGTON - US lawmakers voted Friday to elevate President Joe Biden's giant social welfare bill to the Senate, in a major step forward for his vision for a more equitable society that is the centerpiece of his domestic agenda.

Build Back Better -- Biden's potentially legacy-defining package of education, health care, childcare and climate reforms -- was green-lit by the House four days after the president signed off on the first part of his economic blueprint, a sweeping upgrade of the country's crumbling infrastructure.

The $1.8 trillion measure is likely to get a bumpier ride in the upper chamber, with the Democrats' deficit hawks jittery over spiraling inflation -- before it gets a final rubber stamp in the House, likely in December or January.

"We have a Build Back Better bill that is historic, transformative and larger than anything we have ever done before," Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on the House floor ahead of the vote.

"We are building back better... We all agree that we have a moral responsibility to our children, to their future, to pass on the planet in a responsible way. So we are proud to be passing this legislation, under the leadership of President Joe Biden."

Pelosi had hoped to vote on the measure late Thursday but Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy halted the action by breaking her record for the longest House floor speech, clocking in at more than eight-and-a-half hours.

Under House rules the party leaders are allowed a courtesy "magic minute," meaning they can be recognized to speak for as long as they wish while the rank and file get just 60 seconds.

The breakthrough vote in the House came as Biden was set to transfer power to Vice President Kamala Harris while he underwent a colonoscopy under anesthesia as part of a regular health check.

- Rambling address -

McCarthy finally yielded the floor at 5:11 am after beginning speaking at 8:38 pm Thursday, in a rambling address that appeared as much about pushing talking points to his members as it was an effort to change any minds on the bill.

The legislation would provide millions of jobs, according to the White House, although Republicans have characterized it as an example of wildly out-of-control Democratic spending.

It will likely be watered down in the upper chamber, however, where Democrats have the narrowest of majorities and moderates are voicing concerns over Biden's spending plans.

Annual inflation jumped to 6.2 percent last month, giving Republicans another cudgel to bash Biden with as they bid to retake both chambers of Congress in next year's midterm elections.

House Democrats would have lost the party-line vote had there been more than three defectors.

In the end only one Democrat -- from a competitive district in Maine --- joined the Republicans in rejecting the bill, boosting the majority party's hopes that members in both chambers can overcome months of infighting to get the package signed into law.

The prospect of a vote ahead of next week's Thanksgiving recess had initially looked slim, with a handful of centrist Democrats demanding a full analysis from the Congressional Budget Office to clarify the cost of the package before they will agree to vote.

That came Thursday evening, with the CBO saying Build Back Better would boost the deficit by $367 billion over 10 years.

- 'Craptacular mess' -

This might normally be a problem for the Democrats' fiscal conservatives, but they were largely assuaged by White House officials pointing out that the estimate does not include savings that could be made through tougher taxation enforcement.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that Build Back Better was "fully paid for," and would help reduce the deficit in the long run via reforms "that ask the wealthiest Americans and large corporations to pay their fair share."

Senate insiders expect the bill to be taken up by the upper chamber in late December or possibly January, with more urgent priorities such as avoiding a debt default and a government shutdown expected to take up much of the holiday period.

The Senate has been locked in a 50-50 split for one of the longest periods in its history, and, with no votes to spare, every Democrat effectively has a veto on any bill as long as Republicans stick together.

Senate progressives are pushing for a national paid family leave program and a bigger expansion of health care benefits, but the latest inflation data could harm those efforts.

Senator Ben Sasse led the Senate Republicans' criticism of the bill ahead of the vote, labeling it a "craptacular mess" that will lead to "a million more annual IRS audits."

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