‘Crisis Into Opportunity’: Biden Delivers First Joint Address to Congress

President Joe Biden laid out a sweeping vision for a nation on the rebound of a deadly pandemic in his first joint address to Congress Wednesday night.

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, Wednesday in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., look on. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night, unveiling a $1.8 trillion plan that features significant investments in childcare, paid family leave and education.

The address arrives as the 46th president and former senator rings in his first 100 days in office, a time that has largely been consumed by the administration’s push to inoculate as many Americans as possible to end the spread of the novel coronavirus. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began last year, the virus has killed over 575,000 in the United States and infected over 32 million people.

“Now — after just 100 days — I can report to the nation: America is on the move again… Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength,” Biden remarked to the nation and to a group of roughly 200 masked lawmakers who attended the socially distanced speech delivered from the floor of the House of Representatives.

A far cry from the over 1,000 guests that typically file into the Capitol for the joint address — a tradition that began in 1789 — the affair was much smaller this year with a select group of officials appearing. Notably looking on Wednesday night were First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

And unlike years prior, no designated survivor was selected by the White House. Typically, the White House chooses a high ranking official to sit out big events like the joint address. That person will stay at a secure location in the event of a disaster.

Disaster has been a common theme in the United States but the president called on Congress to meet historic challenges head on and restore some semblance of the bipartisan collaboration necessary to legislate.

In that vein, the president also called on lawmakers to work on lowering prescription drug prices and grant Medicare the authority to negotiate its own prices, an about-face from the existing law. Prescription drugs through Medicare actually flow through private insurance companies and as it stands, Medicare is not permitted to negotiate on its own.

“That won’t just help people on Medicare, it will lower prescription drug costs for everyone. The money we save can go to strengthen the Affordable Care Act — expand Medicare coverage and benefits — without costing taxpayers one additional penny,” Biden said. “Let’s get it done this year. This is all about a simple premise: Health care should be a right, not a privilege in America.”

But the prospects of altering Medicare are dim. Republicans have long opposed giving that authority to Medicare and pulling it away from the hands of private insurers. Opposition to most of the president’s relief plans have broken this way with sharp rejection from the right.

“We have to prove democracy still works,” Biden said. “That our government still works and can deliver for the people.”

The Biden administration has worked overtime to prove the government can still function following the chaos that came with the pandemic’s start over a year ago. The Biden White House moved at a breakneck pace to administer vaccines to over 200 million American adults. While former President Donald Trump’s administration facilitated the development of the vaccine itself, it is the Biden White House that rolled out a winning strategy delivering vaccines across the country’s many, and often convoluted, health systems. As of this month, the U.S. is administering an average of roughly three million shots daily.

In addition to commemorating the solemn achievements reached during this deadly pandemic, the president outlined his administration’s latest proposal: the American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion package meant to reinvigorate the nation’s economy while promoting greater equity for families and people of color.

The massive plan follows the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that Congress passed in March after intense negotiations and a vote that took nearly 12 hours to complete. Despite resistance from Republican lawmakers — the bill narrowly squeaked through the Senate in a 50-49 vote — Democrats were able to pass the plan through a process known as reconciliation, which only required a simple majority in favor instead of the 60 votes typically required under Senate rules to pass a law.  

The maneuver set many Republican and moderate Democrat lawmakers alight and Biden has been regularly criticized on Capitol Hill for being less amenable to negotiating with the GOP than he vowed at his inauguration.

Speaking directly to the GOP, Biden touched on resistance to his recently proposed infrastructure plan: “I applaud a group of Republican Senators who just put forward their own proposal. So let’s get to work. But the rest of the world isn’t waiting for us. I want to be clear, from my perspective, doing nothing is not an option.”

Republicans in Congress have countered Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan with a much smaller offer hovering closer to just half a billion.

But Biden did not focus long on insider politicking or divisions. Instead, he hailed the fruits of the first rescue plan — which included $1,400 checks issued to 161 million and extended unemployment benefits — while calling for even more investment as the nation rebuilds its faltering economy just more than a year after the pandemic began.

Under the president’s proposed American Families Plan, low- and middle-income families would pay no more than 7% of their total income on childcare for kids under five.  The plan also calls for investing $200 billion into universal preschool for all three- and four-year-old children, and seeks to increase childcare workers’ wages to $15 an hour. The universal preschool program could save the typical family over $10,000 annually.

States would be expected to pay for about half of preschool expenses; the federal government would cough up the rest. And these benefits are not limited by an income threshold — all American children, from all incomes, are eligible.

“Jill is a community college professor who teaches today as First Lady,” Biden said. “She has long said any country that out-educates us is going to outcompete us — and she’ll be leading this effort.”

The plan unveiled Wednesday also includes two years of free community college for all Americans, to the tune of $109 billion. The White House estimates that once implemented, and with full participation across the states, more than five million students would attend college for free. Under the plan, the federal government would cover up to 75% of tuition costs and states would pay the remainder.

Congress would also be asked to shore up resources for new teachers by appropriating $2.8 billion for teacher residency programs across the U.S. and $900 billion just for special education instructors.

Centering attention on communities of color, the administration also proposes forming a near $40 billion fund that would pay for two years of tuition for students enrolled at four-year historically Black colleges or universities and whose families earn less than $125,000 annually. Some $400 million would be earmarked just for teacher training initiatives at HBCUs.

The plan would also revamp how much financial aid students can receive through Pell grants. Where students can now only receive as much as about $6,500 for the current academic year, Biden has proposed doubling that amount.

About 29 million hungry kids who received free school meals under 2020’s pandemic relief programs will see another round of investments under the proposal. Biden wants to see the fund made permanent and vested, before the end of summer, with $25 billion.

The American Families Plan also provides for 12 weeks of guaranteed paid family leave or personal leave. According to the White House, the 12 weeks of paid leave could be used for caretaking, illness, dealing with family members’ military deployment or even healing from sexual assault, stalking and domestic violence. But that measure would not kick in for about a decade; under the proposal, it will not take effect until the plan is in its 10th year. If passed, the package does, in its first year on the books, secure three days of bereavement per year for every worker.

Tax credits for children extended this March would be locked in for four more years, and the plan makes permanent an expansion of the earned income credit for workers without kids.

The administration proposes paying for its litany of programs by taxing the very rich — or those in the top 1% — by reversing one of the Trump administration’s crowning achievements and returning the corporate tax rate to 39.6% from 37%.

Estates of the deceased will also be expected to pay taxes on any unrealized gains exceeding $1 million per individual or $2.5 million per couple. Family-run businesses and farms are exempt, however, from paying taxes when bequeathing an estate to someone who will keep that operation running.

And tax dodgers in sky-high income brackets will feel a squeeze too. The president proposes giving the IRS a whopping $80 billion to strengthen its enforcement among the nation’s wealthiest earners. How much could be brought in from stricter enforcement is debatable, but the White House suggests it could generate $700 billion.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget lauded the administration’s plan for American families but offered those accolades with a warning.

“The Biden administration deserves credit for committing to ultimately offset the cost of both the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, which will cost a combined $4.5 trillion over the next decade. Congress should follow the President’s lead, and do better by paying for new costs over a traditional 10-year budget window,” MacGuineas said in a statement Wednesday. “But we must not lose sight of the nation’s high and rising debt outlook even under current law. Simply paying for new initiatives won’t stabilize our fiscal trajectory. And the massive price tag of these proposals will make deficit reduction harder, since many of the most obvious deficit reduction measures will be used to pay for new costs.”

Biden’s address marked the first time lawmakers appeared for a joint session since the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. Security measures were extremely strict with most of the 200 attendees invited by lottery or invited on a first come, first serve basis.

Wednesday’s address also marked another milestone: it was the first time in U.S. history that two women were seated behind the president for a joint address. Seated behind the president were Kamala Harris– the first woman to ever serve as veep – and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

When Biden handed off papers to Harris and Pelosi Wednesday night, he remarked: “I’ve been waiting a long time to do this.”

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