President Biden struck a subdued tone in his first address before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, gently pushing the assembled lawmakers and viewers at home to unite behind his aggressive spending agenda.
The low-key address touted the administration’s accomplishments on the coronavirus pandemic and the economy and also called on Republicans to reach across the aisle and compromise with Democrats to pass his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan and his newly introduced $1.8 trillion “American Families Plan.”
“Investments in jobs and infrastructure like the ones we’re talking about have often had bipartisan support,” Biden said. “Vice President Harris and I meet regularly in the Oval Office with Democrats and Republicans to discuss the American Jobs Plan,” Biden said of his $2.3 trillion proposal.
He said that he applauds the Republican senators who recently put forth a $568 billion counterproposal to Biden’s plan.
“So, let’s get to work,” Biden said. “We welcome ideas. But, the rest of the world isn’t waiting for us. Doing nothing is not an option.”
He later called out Senate Republicans for stalling progress on gun control, saying lax gun laws have led to “daily bloodshed.”
“Look, I don’t want to become confrontational but we need more Senate Republicans to join the overwhelming majority of their Democratic colleagues and close loopholes and require background checks to purchase a gun,” Biden said during his first address before a joint session of Congress. “And we need a ban on assault weapons and high—capacity magazines again.”
The president also used the speech to present his new American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion bill focused on health care, child care, and education.
The bill includes $400 billion to extend the existing child tax credit to 2025, $225 billion in childcare subsidies, $225 billion for a national paid family leave program and $200 billion for universal preschool, among other provisions.
The plan also includes an expansion of unemployment insurance programs; Senate Democrats have called for states to offer half a year of benefits at 75 percent of a worker’s former pay and to provide benefits to part-time employees and those who leave their jobs with good cause.
Additionally, the measure would see an additional $85 million put toward Pell Grants for low-income students seeking undergraduate degrees and $9 billion to train and diversify American teachers. The proposal would also provide two years of free community college to all Americans.
To pay for the sweeping plan, Biden has proposed raising the top marginal income tax rate from 37 percent to 39.6 percent and nearly doubling the capital gains rate for individuals making more than $1 million a year. Additionally, to fund the American Jobs Plan, Biden has proposed hiking the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent and negotiating a global minimum tax rate for multinational corporations.
During his speech on Wednesday, Biden said he has “made clear that we can do it without increasing deficits.”
“I will not impose any tax increases on people making less than $400,000 a year,” he said. “It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans to pay their fair share.”
However, Biden may struggle to find support from Republicans for both of his massive proposals as GOP lawmakers have been unsupportive of any tax increases and have been critical of the size of Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which they argue includes a number of measures that do not qualify as infrastructure.
Biden on Wednesday also claimed he had rescued “a nation in crisis.”
“One hundred days since I took the oath of office—lifted my hand off our family Bible—and inherited a nation in crisis,” Biden said. “The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
“Now—after just 100 days—I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” he said.
He noted that the administration had exceeded his promise of delivering 100 million COVID vaccinations in 100 days, saying it will have provided over 220 million shots in that time. Every American over the age of 16 is now eligible for the vaccine, he added, saying that 90 percent of people in the U.S. now live within 5 miles of a vaccination site.
However, he said there is “still more work to do to beat this virus.”
“We can’t let our guard down now,” he added.
The president went on to discuss immigration reform as the U.S.-Mexico border faces a record-breaking surge of migrants, with more than 170,000 people apprehended crossing the border illegally in March, a 15-year record.
“On day one of my Presidency, I kept my commitment and I sent a comprehensive immigration bill to Congress,” Biden said. “If you believe we need a secure border – pass it. If you believe in a pathway to citizenship – pass it. If you actually want to solve the problem – I have sent you a bill, now pass it.”
Biden advocated for the wide-ranging George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would create a national police misconduct registry and require all federal, state and local law enforcement to submit reports about complaints and discipline. It also bans federal officers from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases and would end qualified immunity for officers, a provision that has struggled to receive GOP support.
“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 called on Congress to come together to “root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system” and to enact the George Floyd act.
“I know the Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in productive discussions with Democrats. We need to work together to find a consensus,” he said, adding that he hopes to see the act passed before the first anniversary of Floyd’s death next month.
The president spoke before a smaller audience than would typically be present for a joint session, as only invited members of Congress will be permitted to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions implemented by the House sergeant-at-arms. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who gave members of both parties an equal number of tickets, noted that the address “went from 1,600 people to 200 people,” adding that it is “a different dynamic, but it has its own worth.”
Senator Tim Scott (R., S.C.) delivered the GOP rebuttal to the president’s speech on Wednesday night.