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What’s going on with the Build Back Better plan in Congress?

President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan has been delayed in Congress as Democrats haggle over the cost and what programs should be trimmed or cut entirely to arrive at a price tag that will win over moderate holdouts but spend enough to retain progressive support.

Amanda Becker

Originally published by The 19th

This story will be updated throughout negotiations. 

The Build Back Better Act, as proposed, would spend $3.5 trillion over the next decade on domestic programs including establishing universal pre-kindergarten, subsidizing child care, extending the expanded child tax credit, subsidizing free community college, providing 12 weeks of paid medical and family leave, and closing the Medicaid coverage gap, along with climate-centric provisions like slashing methane emissions and incentivizing the production of clean energy.

Biden campaigned on the package as an investment in “caregiving” infrastructure and it is widely discussed as disproportionately benefitting women, who have left the workforce in droves during the COVID-19 pandemic as it disrupted school and child care arrangements.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that Democrats “have some important decisions to make in the next few days” to pass a package that will “free up women to go into the workplace.”

Build Back Better was initially designed to be debated in tandem with a more traditional infrastructure program funding roads and bridges. The two were split so the traditional package could move with bipartisan support, and Democrats are now aiming to use a procedural maneuver known as reconciliation to pass the caregiving bill on their own. But, in the evenly split Senate, there are two outspoken holdouts — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — and just one Democratic defector can tank its chances.

Democrats have been at a standoff in recent weeks. The Senate in August approved the $1.2 trillion traditional infrastructure bill, but House progressives say they will not vote for it until, as promised by party leaders, an agreement is made to also approve the Build Back Better Act. Manchin has said he wants Build Back Better’s overall price tag to come in at $1.5 trillion but has not specified how he would like to arrive at that level of spending. Sinema has not publicly detailed her positions.

It was unclear at first whether progressives would aim to trim the overall cost of Build Back Better with across-the-board cuts or by using a nearer-term “sunset provision” that would fund the programs for a shorter period of time. It appears that they have settled on the latter.

“We are not going to pit child care against climate change, we’re not going to pit housing against paid leave, we are not going to pit young people against seniors,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Tuesday.

On the same call with reporters, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is on the party’s left, said: “We are prepared to negotiate, we’re prepared to compromise, but we are not going to negotiate with ourselves.” The Budget Committee he chairs drafted the $3.5 trillion blueprint, which he said is “already a major compromise” from the $6 trillion in spending he aimed for.

Here are some of Build Back Better Act provisions Democrats are debating that could benefit women and LGBTQ+ people:

More affordable child care and universal pre-kindergarten

The bill proposes spending about $450 billion to fully pay for preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and subsidize child care on a sliding scale, capping expenditures for middle-class families at 7 percent of annual income. The liberal-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that in 32 states, the typical family would save $100 a week on child care and that the measure  would lower the child care costs for families at 135 percent of the state median income threshold by $5,000 to $6,500 annually. It would also use grants to stabilize child care facilities and encourage them to raise wages for workers.

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An extension of the expanded child tax credit

As part of a coronavirus relief package, Congress expanded the annual child tax credit in 2021 from $2,000 to $3,000 for children ages 6 to 17 and to $3,600 for children under the age of 6. It was also tweaked so the benefits were fully available to the poorest parents. Build Back Better would extend this expanded tax credit through 2025.

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Free community college

The bill would authorize spending $111 billion, with some going to increase the value of financial need-based Pell Grants and support Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and most of it going to cover two years of free community college for all students. More than half of students enrolled in community colleges are women.

Paid family and medical leave

The bill would provide 12 weeks of paid leave for all workers if they are new parents, recovering from a serious illness or injury, caring for a sick or injured family member, or handling caregiving issues related to a family member’s military deployment. It defines family broadly and would replace 85 percent of wages up to $290 weekly, with replacement percentages decreasing as income levels rise, topping out at about $1,200 per week. It would cost about $225 billion.

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Closing the Medicaid coverage gap

Twelve states have not expanded the government’s Medicaid health insurance program for lower-income people and those with disabilities under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the Build Back Better Act proposes closing the gap by helping insure people who make too much money to qualify for Medicare but not enough to qualify for ACA subsidies. The White House estimates it would help 4 million people get coverage. It would be a two-phase process, beginning with expanding the ACA tax credits to 100 percent of the poverty line, then creating a federal Medicaid program for people in non-expansion states. Medicaid expansion is expected to disproportionately benefit people of color and birthing parents.

Expanded Medicare benefits

The bill would add dental, hearing and vision benefits to the Medicare insurance program for the elderly, with beneficiaries paying 20 percent in a cost-sharing arrangement. It also proposes letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, which the bill’s supporters say would raise revenue for expanding Medicare benefits and other parts of the package.

Home- and community-based care

It proposes spending about $400 billion on home- and community-based care that would directly create more than 700,000 jobs, according to the CAP estimates. This investment is designed to allow the elderly and disabled to remain in their homes, while creating better-paying jobs for people in the caregiving workforce, which is disproportionately made up of women.

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