Biden pitches 'once in a generation investment' to Congress

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Media caption,

The first time 'Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President' were said

US President Joe Biden has laid out a sweeping investment plan for jobs, education and social care in his first speech to a joint session of Congress.

Delivered on the eve of his 100th day in office, the Democrat pitched some $4 trillion (£2.9tn) in spending - the largest overhaul of US benefits since the 1960s, analysts say.

He called it a "once in a generation investment in America itself".

But the plans face a battle in Congress before they can become law.

There has been widespread opposition to the proposals from the Republican Party, which is unlikely to back tax increases and more government spending.

And while there is a slim Democratic majority in both houses, there has been division among the party over how far to go with the plans.

In a historic moment, US Vice-President Kamala Harris - the first woman to hold that office - and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi both sat behind Mr Biden during Wednesday night's address. It was the first time two women appeared behind the president during a speech to Congress.

After addressing Ms Harris in his opening remarks as Madam Vice-President, Mr Biden added: "No president has ever said those words from this podium. And it's about time."

What did Biden propose?

The 78-year-old president, buoyed by solid approval ratings, presented the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. The White House said the proposals would be funded by tax raises on corporations and the wealthiest Americans.

"It's time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1%... to pay their fair share," Mr Biden said at an event that was scaled back due to the pandemic.

He described the American Jobs Plan as "a blue-collar blueprint to build America" that would boost investment in public transport, high-speed broadband and roads and bridges. He added that the plan would be guided by the fight against climate change.

"When I think climate change I think jobs," he said. "There's no reason why American workers can't lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries."

Biden's spending proposals ($bn). Key areas.  .

He said the $1.8tn American Families Plan, meanwhile, would focus on children and seek to provide:

  • Free pre-school for children aged three to four
  • Paid family and medical leave as well as health insurance subsidies
  • Tuition-free community college for all
  • An extension of key tax breaks that have been expanded during the pandemic

The proposal follows the so-called American Rescue Plan, a $1.9tn coronavirus stimulus package that included direct cheques to most Americans, which Mr Biden signed into law last month.

On Wednesday, he framed these latest proposals in the context of foreign policy and said the US was "in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century". He also called for politicians from both parties to back his plans and said he was willing to work with both sides.

Joe Biden's speech to Congress started as a victory lap and ended with a warning.

He began by touting what has been by all accounts a very successful rollout of vaccinations in the US, paving the way for a return to some semblance of normalcy in the months ahead. He boasted of hundreds of thousands of new jobs created in his first 100 days and a growing economy. He touted recently passed funding that will help cut child poverty in the US in half.

That was all a set-up, however, for the president's pitch for more - more spending and more action from Congress. He proposed a trillion-dollar package of universal pre-kindergarten, two years of free college education, family leave and childcare funding. He called for legislation on gun control, immigration, criminal justice reform and voting rights.

He concluded, however, by turning to the 6 January attack on the US Capitol and the threat posed to democracy by the world's autocratic nations.

He assured the nation that the US will prevail. His ending, however, seemed designed to create a sense of urgency - one that, perhaps, he can harness to achieve the ambitious agenda he set out on Wednesday night.

How did Republicans respond?

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Mr Biden's first 100 days in office were "an unqualified failure", accusing him and his party of "hyper-partisanship".

"In his inaugural address, Biden called for unity. That was a lie, and our nation is worse-off and more divided thanks to Joe Biden," her statement read.

The top Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy, was more concise. "This whole thing could have just been an email," he wrote on Twitter.

Senator Tim Scott - a possible contender for the White House in 2024 and the only black Republican senator - followed Mr Biden's speech with the traditional rebuttal from the opposition party.

He said the proposals would "lower wages of the average American worker" and dismissed them as a "liberal wish list of big government waste".

Mr Scott then discussed racism in America, accusing Democrats of wanting "the issue more than they want the solution".

"America is not a racist country. It's backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination and it's wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present," he said.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Republican Senator Tim Scott delivered a rebuttal to Mr Biden's speech