It’s not just the price tag.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday responded to Biden’s pitch, made in a joint address to Congress, by declaring that the new administration “wants to jack up taxes in order to nudge families toward the kinds of jobs Democrats want them to have, in the kinds of industries Democrats want to exist, with the kinds of cars Democrats want them to drive, using the kinds of child-care arrangements that Democrats want them to pursue.”
That echoed a message sketched out immediately after Biden’s speech by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who gave the nationally televised GOP response and accused Democrats of wanting “to put Washington even more in the middle of your life, from the cradle to college,” and other Republicans followed suit.
“I think there’s a lot of lefty social engineering paid for by mortgaging the future of my children and my grandchildren,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “It’s doubling down on the same old solutions on the left and just throwing more money at it.”
No legislation has been written to implement Biden’s proposals, and congressional Democrats are likely to finesse and amend them as they work through the legislative process in the coming months. But nothing in Biden’s blueprint would mandate that Americans attend free community college, drive electric cars or put their children in prekindergarten.
That has made the early GOP attacks especially mind-boggling for Democrats, who responded this week by arguing that they show Republicans are out of touch with the needs of most American families, especially as the country emerges from the ravages of the covid pandemic.
“I think they’re just flailing,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who will play a key role in refining Biden’s proposals as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and said his party’s aim was “to create options for families that will help us be more productive and create more high-skill, high-wage jobs.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Budget Committee chairman, called the Republican attacks “way out of touch with common sense and where the American people are at.”
“No one is going to be coerced into anything,” he said. “But a mom or a dad who is going to work in order to provide for the family wants to know that their kids are in quality, affordable child care that exists in almost every other major country on Earth. We’ve got to do the same here.”
The Biden child-care proposal — which would establish universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and also subsidize child care for low- and middle-income families — emerged as a special lightning rod for conservatives.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) set the tone in a Fox Business Network interview Wednesday, hours after Biden released his plan, where she argued the proposals would “incentivize women to rely on the federal government to organize their lives.”
“Three-year-old pre-K, they’re going to mandate this. Two years of college, whether you like it or not. These are the things that take away choices from the American people,” she said. “It favors those who want power and control over every single minute of your day. It is disgusting.”
Later, as Biden gave his address, Blackburn tweeted a link to a 1974 New York Times story about the prevalence of affordable child care in the Soviet Union, adding: “You know who else liked universal day care.”
Some of the critiques on the right have been even more biting. J.D. Vance, a best-selling author and investor who is considering a Senate run in Ohio, said in a Thursday appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News Channel program that Biden’s universal pre-K proposal was about favoring the “preferences of our ruling-class elites” over those of average Americans.
“They want strangers to raise their kids, but middle-class Americans, whatever their station in life, they want more time with their children,” he said.
Carlson interjected with further mockery of the plan, which Biden has billed as helping to improve children’s lives: “I love how they call it preschool like it’s an education initiative. It’s day care, let’s just say it out loud.”
Numerous studies, however, support Biden’s claims about the benefits of early-childhood education. Lenore Palladino, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the emerging Republican case against subsidizing child care ignores the economic realities of modern America: Not only do both parents want to work in many households, but for many more it is simply not a choice.
“I think sometimes policymakers, or people like myself who have more economic stability and are in professional settings, forget the deep reality that most families in this country need at this point two working partners to make a go of it, to be able to have a little bit of breathing room,” Palladino said. “We need a system that enables us to not be individually trying to scramble and figure out the best circumstances for child care.”
An April Yahoo News/YouGov survey found 58 percent of Americans in favor of providing universal pre-K for all American children, as Biden proposes, and 60 percent in favor of creating subsidies that would reduce the cost of child care for working parents. A majority of Democrats and independents favor child-care subsidies, while Republicans were roughly split. The poll also found most Democrats and independents in favor of universal pre-K, while slightly more Republicans were opposed than they were for child-care subsidies.
While many Republicans have made clear that they see no role for the federal government in further supporting child care, community college or employer leave, a small group of GOP lawmakers have floated alternative plans that would put cash directly into the bank accounts of American parents to spend as they wish — on child care or simply to allow a parent to stay home and provide care themselves.
“If you’re providing the service instead of the cash, what you’re saying is, we are providing you a benefit, but only if you use it in the way that we want,” said Oren Cass, executive director of the conservative think tank American Compass and an advocate for more federal support for families. “If your concern is that families are having trouble making ends meet . . . then the way that you should address that is with a program that provides more resources to families.”
Cass points to his group’s own survey research in claiming that most households prefer cash assistance to child-care subsidies, particularly down the income ladder. That argument has underpinned many of the early attacks on Biden’s plan.
Democrats, he said, “don’t just get to say, ‘We have this massive child-care plan, and you have no alternative.’ You actually do have an alternative. And, gosh, it looks like it may actually be more aligned with what middle- to working-class households would find most appealing.”
Still, the scale of the GOP plans appear to fall short of what Biden is proposing in combined child-care subsidies, universal pre-K funding and other family supports — including a $3,000-per-year child tax credit. And it is unclear how much support any of the conservative alternatives have inside the GOP congressional ranks.
The plan put forth by Hawley, for instance, would give families a refundable tax credit up to $12,000 per year, no strings attached, calculated based on earnings to encourage parents to hold jobs.
“It doesn’t pick for them the child-care solution — they have to pick. What Joe Biden wants to do is pick commercial day care,” Hawley said in an interview. “I think that’s a mistake.”
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah.) have proposed a more modest system of tax credits that would not be fully refundable, while Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has proposed a more sweeping plan that would issue monthly Social Security-like checks of up to $350 per child to most families.
Romney was among the Republicans who pooh-poohed Biden’s approach to child care this week, calling it “an incursion of the long hand of the federal government in areas where it doesn’t belong.”
“Building a national child-care enterprise of some kind, run by the federal government, is not my idea of the best way to give families the options that they would like to have,” he told reporters.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.