Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled what he called a “once-in-a-generation” investment in American infrastructure, promising a nation still struggling to overcome the coronavirus pandemic that his $2tn plan would create the “strongest, most resilient, innovative economy in the world”.
Speaking at a carpenters’ training center outside of Pittsburgh, where he launched his campaign two years ago, Biden returned as president to elaborate on his campaign pledge to “rebuild the backbone of America”.
The expansive proposal, called the American Jobs Plan, would rebuild 20,000 miles of roads and highways and repair the 10 most economically significant bridges in the country among a sprawling list of other projects that Biden said would confront the climate crisis, curb wealth inequality and strengthen US competitiveness.
“This is not a plan that tinkers around the edges,” Biden said. “It is a once in a generation investment in America unlike anything we’ve done since we built the interstate highway system and the space race decades ago.”
The measure includes hundreds of billions of dollars to expand access to high-speed broadband; replace lead water pipes, ensuring access to clean drinking water; and upgrade the electric grid, making it more reliable while shifting to new, cleaner energy sources.
It also seeks to improve community care facilities for seniors and people with disabilities, modernize schools and retrofit homes and office buildings while dedicating funding to training millions of workers and supporting initiatives that strengthen labor unions.
The spending over eight years would generate millions of new jobs, Biden said. To pay for the package, he proposed a substantial increase on corporate taxes that would offset the spending over the course of 15 years. Among the changes, Biden called for a rise in the corporate tax rate to 28% from 21% and measures to force multinational corporations to pay more taxes in the US on profits earned abroad.
The funding plan would unwind major pieces of Donald Trump’s tax-cut law, which lowered the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% and was his predecessor’s signature legislative achievement.
The backdrop of Biden’s speech was politically and symbolically resonant. Pittsburgh – a city he won, in a swing state that helped deliver him the presidency – was once a symbol of American industrial decline but has steadily rebuilt its economy with green medical facilities, research universities and tech companies.
The package is only the first half of the president’s sprawling infrastructure agenda that, if enacted, would dramatically reshape the American economy. Biden said he would present a second legislative package, called the American Families plan, in the coming weeks that will focus on investments in healthcare, childcare and education. That measure is expected to be paid for, at least in part, by raising taxes on the nation’s highest earners.
The proposals, together expected to cost as much as $4tn, are as ambitious in scale as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. A memo outlining its ambition states: “Like great projects of the past, the president’s plan will unify and mobilize the country to meet the great challenges of our time: the climate crisis and the ambitions of an autocratic China.”
“It’s big, yes. It’s bold, yes. But we can get it done,” Biden said optimistically, as the road ahead for his infrastructure plans grew more perilous amid criticism from Republicans that the plan is too expansive and demands from liberals that he go even bigger.
Biden’s allies on Capitol Hill are gearing up for a fight over the infrastructure legislation that will likely prove to be significantly more contentious than the swift passage of Biden’s $1.9tn economic aid bill, which was enacted earlier this month with only Democratic votes and relied entirely on deficit spending.
While the urgency of the pandemic helped Democrats overcome a handful of objections to pass Biden’s coronavirus relief plan, there is infighting over what belongs in the package – and whether the administration should spend time attempting to forge a bipartisan consensus.
Both Democrats and Republicans – as well as a majority of Americans – share a desire to fix the nation’s aging roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure. Yet there are sharp disagreements over the details – what constitutes “infrastructure,” how much to spend and how to pay for the investments. That chasm proved too wide for both Barack Obama and Trump to overcome and both failed to make progress after promising to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.
Congressional Republicans are already balking at the scope of the project, warning that the tax rises will hurt American competitiveness and slow the nation’s economic growth.
Speaking to reporters in Kentucky on Wednesday, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, signaled his opposition to the plan, which he called a “Trojan Horse” that would impose “massive tax increases on all the productive parts of our economy”.
Yet in his speech, Biden, who spoke to McConnell about the measure earlier this week, suggested they might find common ground. He also said he was open to alternative proposals to pay for the infrastructure package as long as they didn’t violate his campaign promise not to raise individual taxes on those earning less than $400,000.
Without Republican backing, Democrats will almost certainly be forced to pass the bill through a parliamentary process known as reconciliation that allow them to bypass the Senate filibuster and enact legislation unilaterally.
Even then, rank-and-file Democrats are far from aligned. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the initiative a “welcome first step” but said the package “can and should be substantially larger in size and scope”. Centrist Democrats, meanwhile, urged Biden to engage Republicans, which the president said in his speech he was prepared to do.
With a narrow majority in the House and an evenly divided Senate, Biden has little room for error.
“The divisions of the moment shouldn’t stop us from doing the right thing for the future,” he said. Stressing the urgency of the moment, he vowed: “I’m convinced that if we act now, in 50 years people are going to look back and say this is the moment when America won the future.”