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Biden calls for sweeping new social programs in first joint address to Congress

In a historic first, President Biden was flanked by two women — Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — as he addressed Congress.
In a historic first, President Biden was flanked by two women — Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — as he addressed Congress.Pool/Getty

WASHINGTON — On the eve of his 100th day in office, President Biden used his first address to Congress on Wednesday to tout the nation’s successful COVID response under his leadership and to urge Americans to back a massive expansion of the social safety net financed by taxes on the wealthy.

“A hundred days ago, America’s house was on fire,” Biden said, adding that “America is on the move again’' and painting a hopeful vision for the future. “We’re vaccinating the nation,” he said. “We’re creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. We’re delivering real results people can see and feel in their own lives.”

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But speaking at the site of an armed insurrection, with the Capitol still fenced off to the public, Biden said the work of recovery was far from over. He described democracy as under threat because too many Americans no longer believe the government can work for them. To restore that faith, he called on the public to support fundamental changes to the way the United States supports families and workers, and urged a divided Congress to back his ambitious legislation to create high-paying, blue collar jobs, improve access to education, and protect the environment..

“In another era when our democracy was tested, Franklin Roosevelt reminded us — in America: we do our part,” he said, referencing a past president who dramatically expanded the role of government during multiple crises. “That’s all I’m asking. That we do our part — all of us.”

The address came as Biden enjoys higher approval ratings than his predecessor. He has managed to push through a sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID relief package that’s boosting the still-recovering economy. But the next pieces of his agenda — which have a price tag of several trillion dollars and which would be financed with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy — could face a tougher road, as some moderate Senate Democrats balk at the expense and Republicans mobilize against his priorities.

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Key moments from Biden’s first formal speech to Congress
President Biden addressed a joint session of Congress Wednesday night with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi behind him. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via AP)

Biden called on lawmakers to act on several major bills stalled in the narrowly divided Congress, including ones to help ensure equal pay for women, expand the ability of unions to organize, strengthen voting rights, reform the immigration system, ban assault weapons, and reform police practices in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America,” Biden said. “Now is our opportunity to make real progress.”

He sought to sell his vision for the nation by emphasizing how the government could help average people and enable the United States to compete globally at “an inflection point in history.”

“Think about it, public investment and infrastructure has literally transformed America, our attitudes as well as our opportunities,” Biden said, ticking off government-funded accomplishments like the interstate highway system, public schools, the moon landing, and creation of the Internet. “These are the investments we made together, as one country, and investments that only the government is in the position to make. Time and again, they propel us into the future.”

Biden said he inherited a nation in crisis. ”Now — after just 100 days — I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,’’ he said. ’'Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setbacks into strength.’'

His speech took place in the shadow of a global health crisis and at the site of an insurrection that revealed the dangerous depths of the nation’s partisanship.

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Normally, 1,600 people — nearly every lawmaker, Cabinet member, and Supreme Court justice, along with military leaders, bureaucrats, staff, journalists, and guests — jam into the House chamber for such an event. But because of COVID safety protocols, Biden took the dais before a limited audience of masked members of Congress and other officials scattered apart in assigned seats to comply with social distancing.

Only about 200 of the 535 lawmakers were invited and were not permitted to bring guests. Of the approximately two dozen members of Biden’s Cabinet, only Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin represented the executive branch of government. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was the lone representative of the judicial branch.

For the first time, two women sat in the seats of honor behind the president as he delivered his address. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman to hold the office, gaveled the proceedings into order and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made Biden’s first formal introduction to Congress.

“Thank you Madam Speaker, thank you Madam Vice President,” Biden said before launching into his speech. “No president has ever said those words and it’s about time.”

Biden arrived with achievements to tout in an address held later than usual for a new president. The extra two months allowed the administration to make more progress against the coronavirus, and Biden touted the vaccination campaign as “one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen.” Infections and deaths are down significantly from the winter peak as about 230 million vaccine doses have been administered, more than double Biden’s initial goal for his first 100 days. And Biden’s popular $1.9 trillion rescue plan, enacted by the narrow Democratic majorities in Congress, has begun boosting the pandemic-stricken economy.

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But Biden has much more on his agenda and sought to use Wednesday’s speech to build support for it, if not from reluctant Republicans in Congress, then from the American people.

Lawmakers are beginning to consider his $2 trillion infrastructure package, called the American Jobs Plan.

Biden said the infrastructure legislation would put people to work modernizing highways, roads, and buildings, capping orphan oil and gas wells, and laying broadband in rural communities. Nearly 90 percent of those jobs will not require a college degree, and 75 percent would not require so much as an associate’s degree, he told Congress. It would be paid for in part by raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent from 25 percent.

“The Americans Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” Biden said. “And, it recognizes something I’ve always said: Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class.”

Biden’s newest initiative is another huge spending plan called the American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion proposal focused on expanding education, child care, and access to health care coverage.

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Among its major provisions are universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year old children, free two years of community college, and a national paid family and medical leave program. The legislation also extends a temporary tax credit for families with children and makes permanent subsidies to pay for Affordable Care Act premiums. He also called for allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs.

Biden proposes to pay for the legislation by increasing the top income tax rate and raising the rate on capital gains and dividends for households making more than $1 million a year. He has promised that taxes will not go up on anyone making less than $400,000 a year.

“It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans to pay their fair share,” Biden said.

Republicans immediately attacked the new initiative, saying it was too liberal and too costly as the total price tag for Biden’s three major legislative initiatives approached $6 trillion.

“Tonight we . . . heard about a so-called family plan: even more taxing, even more spending to put Washington even more in the middle of your life, from the cradle to college,” Senator Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, said in the official GOP response. “Our best future will not come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams. It will come from you, the American people.”

Scott, the only Black Republican senator, also said he was working with Democrats on police reform but criticized Democrats for using race as a “political weapon.”

“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country,” Scott said.

On the dais, Biden made overtures to a few Republicans and appeared to connect with both sides of the aisle. As he spoke of a push for farmers to plant cover crops to reduce carbon dioxide, Republicans clapped or nodded, several taking to their feet, as the president added, “There’s no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.”

He once more appealed to unity.

“We are working again,” Biden said. “Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again.”


Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa. Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at jim.puzzanghera@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.