The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mostly united over covid relief, Democrats face divisions over Biden’s massive second economic plan

Fights loom on infrastructure, climate and other major — and competing — agenda items

President Biden speaks arrives to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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Even as President Biden and congressional Democrats work to pass their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, they’re bracing for the next big legislative scramble, over another massive spending bill that’s already drawing intense lobbying and threatening Democratic unity.

Biden’s next package could be far pricier than the coronavirus bill. Although plans remain fluid, it’s expected to center on a major infrastructure investment, while also tackling other priorities such as clean energy, domestic manufacturing, and child and elder care. However, as the next must-pass bill in a divided Congress, where legislative opportunities will be scarce, it has unleashed a torrent of other demands, as advocates for issues from climate change to immigration push to get included.

The cacophony of competing demands is already threatening to divide Democrats who have largely united behind the coronavirus relief bill, which is expected to advance in the House next week despite simmering disagreements over a handful of issues including a minimum-wage hike to $15. Moderate-leaning Democrats could balk at spending trillions more on issues that range far afield from emergency economic relief, and fights are already brewing over how far to go in raising taxes to pay for what comes next.

Millions of jobs probably aren’t coming back, even after the pandemic ends

The next bill will also prove to be a daunting test for Biden himself as he moves on from addressing the immediate crisis of the pandemic to enacting larger initiatives that could begin to form his legacy — if he’s able to navigate the thicket of interest groups and get his priorities through Congress with razor-thin Democratic majorities.

President Biden said that Americans broadly supported his coronavirus relief proposal as he discussed the economy with labor leaders on Feb. 17. (Video: The Washington Post)

Senior Democratic officials have discussed proposing as much as $3 trillion in new spending as part of what they envision as a wide-ranging jobs and infrastructure package that would be the foundation of Biden’s “Build Back Better” program, according to three people granted anonymity to share details of private deliberations. That would come on top of Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan, as well as the $4 trillion in stimulus measures under former president Donald Trump. Aides cautioned that the spending figures were highly preliminary and subject to change.

But unlike under Trump, when multiple efforts to address infrastructure faltered before getting off the ground, Biden is expected to take a big swing at the issue and package together funding for expanded broadband networks, bridge and road repairs as well as technology that reduces greenhouse gases in a sprawling bill that threatens to enlarge to encompass multiple other issues as well.

A White House spokeswoman said the administration is focused on passing coronavirus relief right now and no final decisions have been made on future legislative packages. The spokeswoman also said infrastructure only represents one possible component of the president’s upcoming economic plans.

On Wednesday, Biden met with senior leadership of the AFL-CIO and other labor unions at the White House and discussed both the current relief package and the second recovery bill. The labor leaders have asked Biden to approve as much as $4 trillion in new infrastructure spending, citing estimates of need produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers, according to two people granted anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

“We are so far behind the curve. We rank like 38th in the world in terms of infrastructure, everything from canals to highways to airports, to everything we can do and we need to do to make ourselves competitive in the 21st Century,” Biden said as the Oval Office meeting got underway.

House Democratic leadership also extensively discussed the infrastructure package Wednesday, said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. Beyer stressed the need for an upgrade to the nation’s electrical grid and broadband investments.

“We have the recovery plan well in hand. It’s ready to go. Everybody is talking already about what’s next,” Beyer said. “The zeitgeist is Biden would like it to be $2 trillion-plus for the infrastructure package.”


Economic stimulus or economic relief: Here’s what we know about who might qualify for the next round of coronavirus checks and how much they’ll get. (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden’s plan “will make historic investments in infrastructure — in the auto industry, in transit, in the power sector — creating millions of good union jobs, and in the process, also addressing the climate crisis head-on.” It’s unclear when the package will be officially unveiled. Biden said Jan. 14 that he would lay out his recovery plan during his first appearance before a joint session of Congress the following month, but no date was announced.

Psaki said Wednesday that he would not detail plans for the next legislation until the $1.9 trillion relief bill is passed and signed into law, suggesting a recalibration as the White House takes additional time to order its priorities.

Democrats are unified in principle on the need to address the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and combat climate change, as well as other key goals of Biden’s agenda. But they will face steep divisions on how to enact those policies, torn between climate hawks and moderates over how aggressively to reduce production of natural gas and whether to enact a tax on gas or carbon, among other potential pressure points.

Unlike with the pandemic relief efforts, Democrats are expected to try to pay for parts of the infrastructure package — possibly as much as half of it — through new tax increases on wealthy individuals and corporations. Those tax hikes could prove controversial, particularly if the U.S. economy remains in a rut, fueling intense opposition from Republican lawmakers and the business lobby, and potentially some moderate Democrats as well. Yet more liberal members of the caucus say the time has come.

“We are spending a lot of money,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in an interview. “And I think at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, when the billionaire class is doing phenomenally well while the working class of this country is suffering severe economic desperation, I do think it is appropriate to start taking a hard look at asking the wealthy and large corporations to start paying their fair share of taxes.”

As planning on the next bill has picked up steam, a dizzying array of policy priorities has begun to surface, promoted by outside interest groups, individual Democratic lawmakers, and others.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pushing a proposal called Clean Cars for America that provides tax rebates for people who turn in internal-combustion engines and buy electric cars. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) has discussed green energy initiatives with administration officials.

Advocates for immigration changes are lobbying furiously to include a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants — although that could be a long shot — while environmental advocates are pushing congressional Democrats to go further and use the opportunity to meet one of Biden’s most far-reaching goals: eliminating greenhouse gas pollution from power plants by 2035.

“It will be a very challenging internal process, much more so than the covid bill,” said Bill Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based think tank.

One of the most immediate questions that will confront Biden is whether to aim for a bipartisan bill, or try to again approve the measure with Democratic votes alone through the budget procedure known as reconciliation. Democrats have supported expediting Biden’s coronavirus relief package with no GOP votes, but centrist lawmakers could balk at doing it twice — even as advocates for ambitious climate and immigration initiatives argue that a go-it-alone strategy could be the only way to get their priorities into law.

“I'm still trying to get my head wrapped around how we use reconciliation without undermining our success working across the aisle,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Galston, citing conversations with several moderate Senate Democrats, said some of them are probably supporting Biden’s relief measure now in part as a show of good faith to the new president.

But, he said, as the second package emerges they could say: "‘Mr. President, we went along with you on the first bill, despite our reservations, because of the manifest crisis at hand. … But don’t infer we’ll behave the same way for the second bill, where there are many legitimate points of disagreement.’”

Even some Republicans who have been supportive of some of Biden’s goals have warned that the partisan approach he’s taken on the coronavirus relief bill could sour opportunities for bipartisanship on future initiatives including infrastructure.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican, met with Biden last week “and I said to him, ‘Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,’” Hogan recounted in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” over the weekend.

Even whether Biden will try to roll these major goals into one package appears uncertain. Senior Democrats have discussed the possibility that the package could be cleaved into separate, smaller pieces of legislation that could be passed through Congress on a piecemeal basis, particularly if Republicans are willing to support a stand-alone bipartisan infrastructure deal. Republicans met last week with Biden at the White House to discuss a potential infrastructure agreement.

“There’s been a mislabeling of the packages that we’ve put together to address the pandemic. We keep calling it stimulus. It’s not stimulus — it’s stability. Stimulus will come with infrastructure,” said Neal, who repeatedly tried and failed to negotiate an infrastructure bill with the previous administration. “One of the things where we have a huge advantage with Joe Biden is that he will fully understand the implications of infrastructure.”

Maria Sacchetti and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.