The House passes a $2 trillion spending bill, but braces for changes in the Senate

Nov 19, 2021
Originally published on November 22, 2021 7:55 pm

Updated November 22, 2021 at 7:55 PM ET

The House voted on near-party lines Friday morning to approve a roughly $2 trillion social and climate spending package, ending months of squabbles among Democrats over the details of the far-reaching measure.

The vote was 220-213, with one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, joining all Republicans in opposition.

The legislation is meant to fulfill many of President Biden's promises during the 2020 campaign, including plans to address climate change and provide a stronger federal safety net for families and low-income workers.

"We have the Built Back Better bill that is historic, transformative and larger than anything we have ever done before," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on the House floor. "If you're a parent, a senior, a child, a worker, if you are an American ... this bill's for you and it is better."

House Democrats overcame internal divisions over the cost and scope of the spending package, but the fight will continue as the bill heads to the Senate for revisions.

The vote was delayed after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., spoke all through the night — for more than eight hours. His speech decried Democrats' spending plans, but also veered to subjects including China and border security.

"Never in American history has so much been spent at one time," he said. "Never in American history will so many taxes be raised and so much borrowing be needed to pay for all this reckless spending."

Biden praised House passage of the bill, noting it was the second time in two weeks that the chamber moved two "consequential" pieces of his legislative agenda, referencing the new infrastructure law. He described the vote as a "giant step forward in carrying out my economic plan to create jobs, reduce costs, make our country more competitive, and give working people and the middle class a fighting chance."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks during his weekly press conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images

What's in the measure

The legislation includes:

  • $550 billion to address climate change through incentives and tax breaks;
  • funding to extend the expanded, monthly child tax credit for one year;
  • housing assistance, including $150 billion in affordable housing expenditures;
  • expansions to Medicaid and further assistance to reduce the cost of health care premiums for plans purchased under the Affordable Care Act;
  • four weeks of paid family and medical leave;
  • funding for universal pre-K for roughly 6 million 3- and 4-year-olds;
  • a provision to allow Medicare Parts B and D to negotiate prices directly with drug manufacturers on certain drugs and cap out-of-pocket spending for seniors at $2,000 per year;
  • a $35 cap on monthly insulin expenses.

The spending is mostly offset with taxes on the wealthy and corporations, including:

  • a 5% surtax on taxpayers with personal income above $10 million, and an additional 3% added on income above $25 million;
  • a 15% minimum tax on corporate profits of large corporations that report more than $1 billion in profits;
  • a 1% tax on stock buybacks;
  • a 15% minimum tax on foreign profits of U.S. corporations.

House Democrats unite after months of fighting

Moderate Democrats ultimately voted for the legislation after concerns that estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office would show the measure to be more costly than leaders have projected.

Ultimately, the CBO found the bill would cost the federal government $367 billion over the next decade, "not counting any additional revenue that may be generated by additional funding for tax enforcement." Many Democrats, including the White House, argue that when that is taken into account, the measure would pay for itself.

Members of the fiscally moderate New Democrat Coalition endorsed the legislation ahead of the final cost estimates. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., said the official estimates don't take into account extra revenue from increased tax enforcement — or the broader economic benefits of the legislation.

"When discussing the importance of the bill, we also have to talk about the costs that would be incurred if we don't pass this bill," Schneider said on a call with reporters. "The cost of inaction is simply too high, and it can only be headed off if we act now."

For progressive Democrats, the vote fulfills a promise from Biden and House leaders not to neglect policies that have energized the left wing of their party. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus set aside major demands throughout the negotiations, including more spending and plans for aggressive changes to the nation's health care system, in order to reach an agreement that satisfied the full caucus.

Senate hurdles could drag on for weeks

The House vote is just the latest step in a lengthy process that will almost certainly involve further changes to the bill.

Centrist Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have each expressed concerns about the House version of the legislation. Manchin is particularly opposed to a provision that would provide four weeks of paid family and medical leave for most workers. Sinema's objections are less clear but Democrats need both lawmakers on board in order for the legislation to pass.

It is unclear how long it would take for senators to work out their disagreements and finalize the legislation. Once that work is done, the Senate would have to start a lengthy process to vote on the bill using the budget reconciliation process that would allow the bill to be passed in the Senate with 50 votes, rather than the 60 votes needed for most legislation.

Pelosi told reporters on Thursday that Senate staff have already completed a necessary step to ensure the legislation meets the basic requirements to avoid a Republican filibuster. But the process still has several steps, including a series of unlimited amendment votes known as a vote-a-rama.

Correction: 11/22/21

An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the bill includes a 50% minimum tax on foreign profits of U.S. corporations. It is a 15% tax.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To other news now. After months of internal squabbles, House Democrats voted this morning to approve a far-reaching spending package that could total around $2 trillion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: On this vote, the yeas are 220, the nays are 213. The Build Back Better bill is passed.

(CHEERING)

KELLY: It was passed, eventually, but the vote was delayed overnight as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy launched an eight-hour protest attacking not just the legislation but the core philosophy of the Democratic Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: It is clear to us that this bill is wrong on the merits, and they have responded with a single word the American public have said - enough.

KELLY: McCarthy was not able to block the bill, but it may have helped him achieve some other political goals. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is here to talk about those. She's been following the legislation.

Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: How did this finally come together? Because Democrats have been arguing over this bill, trying to pass this bill for months.

SNELL: Yeah, they actually originally hoped to pass this bill almost a month ago. You know, Democrats were very excited. Here's House Speaker Nancy Pelosi describing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PELOSI: Build Back Better is a better agenda for workers, for families, for children and for our planet.

SNELL: You know, Democrats really did overcome a lot of differences within their own party to land on a bill that includes about $550 billion in incentives for companies and individuals to try to take steps to address climate change. There's also funding for universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, which is expected to affect about 6 million children. There's funding to make child care more accessible and more affordable and what could be the largest investment in housing in a generation. You know - but this bill isn't final. It's headed to the Senate, and some of the policies House Democrats really pushed for are expected to be removed by senators. You know, senators are really not entirely on board with plans to increase the cap on deductions for state and local taxes. You know, they say that change mostly benefits the wealthy. And Senator Joe Manchin in particular has specifically objected to a plan to give workers four weeks of paid leave. So it is still not final, but the cheering we heard when Pelosi called the vote, it just went on and on. Democrats were absolutely thrilled, and they see this as a huge step.

KELLY: Republicans not so thrilled. They went on fighting on this one with that very, very, very, very long speech from Kevin McCarthy. Did that strike you as a sign of how fired up the GOP is in this moment?

SNELL: Well, to give you an example, some Republicans stayed until the very end at 5 a.m. and they were cheering him as he went. Here's a little bit more of what he said just to get a feel for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCARTHY: Every page of this new Washington spending shows just how irresponsible and out of touch the Democrats are to the challenges that America faces today.

SNELL: So some of the context here is that this has been a particularly bitter week for a group of House members who are clashing almost constantly. It is true that Congress often has tense moments between the two parties. But this year in particular has involved a level of distrust and just outright anger between Democrats and Republicans that I personally have never seen before. McCarthy was speaking to a group of Republicans who really feel Democrats have repeatedly abused the power they have in the House.

KELLY: That's who he was speaking to. What was he trying to say?

SNELL: A lot of this was about McCarthy echoing the frustrations of the party he leads and signaling to them that he's on their side. So Mark Meadows, the former congressman and former chief of staff under former President Trump, did an interview recently where he said if Republicans take back control of the House, Trump should be speaker and not McCarthy. And, you know, this is, to some degree, McCarthy trying to embrace Trump's political, you know, bases and also his tactics. To some degree, that's what he tried to show here. And it may have worked for now. Trump put out a statement supporting McCarthy today, but it's unclear if he can keep his party happy in the long term because Democrats do control the House, and there's not much Republicans can do to stop them right now.

KELLY: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, thank you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.