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Democrats’ messaging shifts as they pass Biden stimulus bill: From economic crisis rescue to poverty relief

Democrats hail legislation as furthest-reaching social welfare bill since the Great Depression, topping even the Affordable Care Act

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference about the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The House approved the revised legislation on Wednesday. Also pictured, from left, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Reps. John Yarmuth, Katherine M. Clark, James E. Clyburn and Richard E. Neal. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

At first, Democrats described their $1.9 trillion stimulus as a response to a once-in-a-century economic and health emergency. But then the language began to shift to something much different: an anti-poverty measure with few precedents in U.S. history.

“I don’t know that I will ever cast a more important vote,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) said Wednesday, as the chamber prepared to send the legislation to President Biden’s desk. “We are not creating a narrative talking about changing lives — we are going to do it with this legislation.”

Congress pass Biden's stimulus package

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) called the bill ″an ideological revolution on behalf of justice.”

Other Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), described the legislation as potentially more consequential even than the Affordable Care Act in its impact on poverty in America.

The Democrats’ comments seemed to confirm — even endorse — GOP complaints that the sprawling bill does more to address long-held liberal priorities than attack the twin economic and health-care crises brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which by some measures are already waning. And the new messaging gave Republicans more political cover to oppose Biden’s package, which failed to pick up a single GOP vote, despite Biden’s promises to reach across the political aisle during the campaign.

Yet the new Democratic talking points raised fresh questions about the legislation, because it is largely composed of one-time or short-term provisions that do not amount to long-term safety net changes — unless Democrats manage to make some of the changes permanent in future legislation.

What's in the stimulus bill?

The Biden relief bill would substantially lower poverty, according to multiple studies — but only for this year because most of its major provisions are set to expire in 2021. Biden and senior Democrats have said they would push to make an expanded child benefit permanent — a measure on its own expected to come close to halving child poverty — but doing so could prove difficult with a narrowly divided U.S. Senate. Without further action, child poverty would double in 2022.

The Urban Institute, a centrist think tank, released a report on Wednesday finding that the $1,400-per-person stimulus payments have the biggest impact on reducing poverty of any provisions in the relief bill. But Democrats are unlikely to push for a permanent expansion in those payments.

Republicans seized on the Democrats’ new boasts about their legislation, with Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) calling it a “selfish attempt to saddle our next generation with debt,” filled with “progressive payouts that we the people did not order.”

Still, Democrats could not contain their jubilation over the legislation, which is widely popular with the public, including with many Republicans — even though it did not get a single vote from a Republican on Capitol Hill. Multiple provisions represented pent-up demand from Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since the start of the Obama administration, and with it the ability to put their imprint on the nation’s laws.

“We’re about to pass one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in modern history. It’s nothing short of a miracle that we have gotten to this point,” said House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth.

“We have come together as a party in the Congress to do something monumental but something that also clearly reflects our values as a party: a commitment to using government to improve the lives of as many people as possible,” Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said. “I think probably all of us who have been around for the last 10 years or so have maybe given up hope we could do anything consequential again in Congress, but we’ve proved we can.”

Even as Republicans united against the legislation and warned against overreach that would send Democrats back into the minority in the midterm elections, Democrats predicted their success on passing Biden’s relief bill would pave the way for more victories to come.

The legislation is expected to drive down the nation’s poverty rate from 12.3 percent to 8.3 percent, which means it will pull about 12 million people out of poverty, according to research led by Columbia University’s Zachary J. Parolin.

The bill’s antipoverty impact comes primarily from three provisions — elevated benefits for the unemployed through early September; one-time, $1,400-per-person stimulus payments; and an expanded child tax credit that will, starting in July, go to families too poor to owe money to the Internal Revenue Service. These policies represent an increase of about 20 percent in annual income for the poorest fifth of Americans, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Some families will receive more than $10,000 in benefits from the new package.

The relief bill will, for one year, boost an existing child tax credit to $3,000 per year for each kid 6 to 17 years old, as well as $3,600 per year for each under 6, and expand it in full to millions of poor families who were previously ineligible. Democrats initially aimed to tell the Internal Revenue Service to award the benefit monthly, but because of complicated parliamentary rules governing the legislation in the Senate, they were forced to amend the plan so the IRS was instructed to award it on a “periodic” basis.

As part of the next covid relief bill, President Biden proposed an expanded child tax credit that would send direct payments to help struggling families. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Scott Dalton/The Washington Post)

Democrats are already making plans to make new child tax credit permanent, according to Neal, with the aim of converting their success on the immediate legislation into a permanent gain — although GOP opposition could make this difficult to achieve.

“One thing that you should know about the tax code: Getting something out of the code is oftentimes harder than getting something in the code,” Neal said. “So, I’ve already had some thoughts about how we’re going to expand it and make it permanent. And I intend to share those in the near future, but what we did is unlikely to go away.”

Democrats are pushing the legislation forward despite exceedingly slim majorities. The Senate is divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Democrats in the majority because Vice President Harris can break ties. In the House, Democrats can lose only five votes.

But drawing from lessons of the past, they moved swiftly on Biden’s relief bill, quickly cutting out Republicans to focus on passing the biggest bill possible on their own terms. Bipartisan negotiations on the Affordable Care Act dragged on for months as the bill grew increasingly unpopular, before Democrats ended up passing it with no GOP support. Ten years ago, in passing rescue legislation to get out of the financial crisis, Democrats and Biden as vice president negotiated with Republicans and ended up with a smaller bill than they wanted, which Democrats believe resulted in a slower recovery than they might have achieved by spending more money when they had the chance.

This time, Democrats were unapologetic about their goals, believing the public was on their side as they pushed massive relief legislation into law. They seized the opportunity to load up the bill with liberal policies they supported long before the advent of the coronavirus crisis — such as a $15 minimum-wage increase that was ultimately struck from the bill. Congressional Republicans were left to fume that Democrats abandoned Biden’s campaign promises of bipartisanship and unity in favor of a go-it-alone strategy the GOP is powerless to stop.

“When you look at the priorities of Speaker Pelosi, it’s to spend as much money as quickly as possible on her socialist agenda, and to turn her backs on those of us who want to work together to confront this virus and to safely reopen our economy and our schools,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said.

Democrats argued that even though the legislation lacks GOP support in Congress, it is nonetheless bipartisan because some Republican mayors and other officeholders support it, as well as significant numbers of GOP voters, according to polling. A Pew Research survey released Tuesday found that 70 percent of American adults overall support the legislation. Among Republicans the support is softer, with 41 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents favoring the legislation. Within that, however, 63 percent of lower-income Republicans and Republican-leaning independents support the legislation, Pew found.

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Time will tell whether Democrats will reap political rewards from passing the legislation, propelling them ahead to make even more gains on Biden’s agenda — or if they will face the public backlash Republicans are predicting.

For now, though, Democrats argue that they are acting to restore faith in government’s ability to help the public, even if their goals of long-term social change do not ultimately materialize. And after long years of frustration as House Democrats failed to transform their ideas into law, they say they have arrived at a moment of success voters will ultimately reward.

“The Affordable Care Act was an extraordinary piece of legislation. Took a long time for the American people to understand how much value it was to them and their families, but they’ve done that now,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). “They certainly didn’t take the time on this bill, however, where we have over 70 percent of the American people think this bill ought to be passed.”

Jeff Stein contributed to this report.