WASHINGTON (AP) — A divided House moved toward passage of Democrats’ expansive social safety net and climate change bill on Thursday as new cost estimates from Congress’ top fiscal analyst suggested that moderate lawmakers’ spending and deficit worries would be calmed.
The House began final debate on the long-delayed legislation after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the package would produce additional federal deficits totaling $160 billion over the coming decade. It also recalculated the measure’s 10-year price tag at $1.68 trillion, though that figure wasn’t directly comparable to a $1.85 trillion figure Democrats have been using.
House approval would ship the legislation to the Senate and end — though only for now — months of battling between the Democrats’ progressives and moderates over its costs and policies. It would also help President Biden move closer to winning more of his domestic priorities at a time when his public approval is faltering badly, reflecting voters’ concerns over inflation, supply chain delays and the persistent coronavirus pandemic.
The 2,100-page bill would bolster child care assistance, create free preschool, curb seniors’ prescription drug costs, establish a paid family leave program and beef up efforts to slow climate change.
“Build Back Better is a spectacular agenda for the future, with transformational action on health care, family care and climate,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a letter to her colleagues, using the name Biden gave the legislation. She said the measure “will make a significant difference in the lives of millions of Americans.”
An initial batch of key figures released by the CBO showed that its projections were aligning closely with earlier estimates from the White House.
In one major difference that was expected, the CBO estimated that by spending $80 billion to beef up IRS tax enforcement, the agency would collect $207 billion in new revenue over the coming decade. That means net savings of $127 billion, well below the White House’s more optimistic $400 billion estimate.
In a scorekeeping quirk, the CBO formally estimated that the legislation would drive up federal budget deficits by $367 billion over the coming decade. The agency’s budget guidelines technically require it to not count IRS savings when measuring a bill’s deficit impact. But it acknowledged that the measure’s true impact would produce added shortfalls of the lower figure — $160 billion — when counting added revenue the IRS would collect.
Biden and other Democratic leaders have said the measure would pay for itself, largely through tax increases on the wealthy, big corporations and companies doing business abroad.
Republicans say the legislation would damage an economy already racked by inflation, give tax breaks to some wealthy taxpayers and make government more intrusive. Missouri Rep. Jason Smith, the Budget Committee’s top Republican, echoed the alliteration from “Build Back Better” to mock it: “Bankrupts the economy. Benefits the wealthy. And it builds the Washington machine,” he said.
House passage of the social and environment bill would send it to the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats have zero votes to spare. Significant changes there are likely, due to cost-cutting demands by moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Senate talks could take weeks, and the prospect that Manchin or others will force additional cuts in the measure was making it easier for House moderates to back the legislation Thursday. The altered bill would have to return to the House before going to Biden’s desk.
When moderates delayed House passage of the bill two weeks ago, they said they wanted to make sure the CBO’s projections for its costs were similar to White House numbers, which showed the measure essentially paid for itself.
Critics have said the bill’s overall cost would exceed $4 trillion if Democrats hadn’t made temporary some of its programs they would actually like to be permanent. For example, tax credits for children and low-earning workers, top party priorities, are extended for just one year under the current measure.