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House narrowly passes Biden’s social safety net and climate bill

Democrats on the House floor celebrated after the passing of the Build Back Better Act.Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The House on Friday narrowly passed the centerpiece of President Biden’s domestic agenda, approving $2 trillion in spending over the next decade to battle climate change, expand health care, and reweave the nation’s social safety net, over the unanimous opposition of Republicans.

The bill’s passage, 220-213, came after weeks of cajoling, arm-twisting, and legislative legerdemain by Democrats. It was capped off by an exhausting, circuitous, and record-breaking speech of more than eight hours by the House Republican leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, that pushed a planned Thursday vote past midnight, then delayed it to Friday morning — but did nothing to dent Democratic unity.

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Groggy lawmakers reassembled at 8 a.m., three hours after McCarthy finally abandoned the floor, to begin the final series of votes to send one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in half a century to the Senate.

“Under this dome, for centuries, members of Congress have stood exactly where we stand to pass legislation of extraordinary consequence in our nation’s history and for our nation’s future,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, adding, the act “will be the pillar of health and financial security in America.”

The bill still has a long and difficult road ahead. Democratic leaders must coax it through the 50-50 Senate and navigate a tortuous budget process that is almost certain to reshape the measure and force it back to the House — if it passes at all.

But even pared back from the $3.5 trillion plan that Biden originally sought, the legislation could prove as transformative as any since the Great Society and War on Poverty in the 1960s, especially for young families and older Americans. The Congressional Budget Office published an official cost estimate Thursday afternoon that found the package would increase the federal budget deficit by $160 billion over 10 years.

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“It puts us on the path to build our economy back better than before by rebuilding the backbone of America: working people and the middle class,” Biden said in a statement. He urged the Senate to swiftly pass the measure.

The assessment indicated that the package overall would cost slightly more than Biden’s latest proposal — $2.2 trillion rather than $1.85 trillion.

It offers universal prekindergarten, generous subsidies for child care that extend well into the middle class; expanded financial aid for college; hundreds of billions of dollars in housing support, home and community care for older Americans; a new hearing benefit for Medicare; and price controls for prescription drugs.

More than half a trillion dollars would go toward shifting the US economy away from fossil fuels to renewable energy and electric cars, the largest investment ever to slow the warming of the planet. The package would largely be paid for with tax increases on high earners and corporations, estimated to bring in nearly $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

Savings in government spending on prescription drugs were projected to bring in another $260 billion, although a scaled-back measure to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices for some medications was estimated to save only $79 billion, far less than the Democrats’ original $456 billion proposal would have.

The fact that the bill could slightly add to the federal deficit did not dissuade House Democrats from proceeding to vote for it, in part because the analysis boiled down to a dispute over a single line item: how much the IRS would collect by cracking down on people and companies that dodge large tax bills.

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The budget office predicted that beefing up the IRS with an additional $80 billion of funding would bring in just $127 billion over 10 years on net. That is far less than the $400 billion the White House estimates it would bring in over a decade, both through enforcement actions and by essentially scaring tax cheats into paying what they owe.

The legislation is moving through Congress under special rules known as reconciliation that shield it from a filibuster, allowing Democrats to push it through over unified Republican opposition in the Senate.

It is a key piece of Biden’s domestic policy agenda, paired with a $1 trillion infrastructure package the president signed into law this week. Its path to Friday’s vote was arduous, from midsummer to deep autumn, with negotiations pitting liberal lawmakers against centrists and House Democrats against senators.

Democrats in the Senate and House had hoped to reach agreement on a final bill before either chamber voted, but that plan was ditched weeks ago amid persistent infighting.

And from the beginning, Republicans — who made it clear they could never support a package of the scope and ambition Biden had proposed — were cut out of the reconciliation talks. While some Republicans voted for the infrastructure measure, they unanimously opposed the expansive social safety net package, arguing that it would constitute a “socialist” encroachment of the federal government into every aspect of American life and would exacerbate rising costs across the country.

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The legislation is all but guaranteed to change in the Senate, where two Democratic centrists, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have yet to explicitly endorse it. In an evenly divided Senate, a single defection could sink its passage, and Democrats will have to maneuver the bill through their own internal divisions and a rapid-fire series of politically difficult amendments that could upend the bill.