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Offering a stark choice for GOP, Biden revealed limit to his patience

Analysis: In his ambitious spending and tax plans, the president offered a template for fellow Democrats in the midterm elections.
Image: President Joe Biden, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on April 28, 2021.
President Joe Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., behind him, addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.Melina Mara / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden framed the choice he sees for Republicans subtly but starkly Wednesday: enact his agenda or sabotage the country.

"America is moving, moving forward, but we can't stop now," Biden said as he addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time as president. "From my perspective, doing nothing is not an option."

Part victory lap for his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and part pitch for his $4 trillion-plus American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, Biden's speech detailed a raft of popular proposals — including tax increases on high-income earners — that amount to a re-imagination of federal spending and taxation. They could also be a template for Democratic candidates in next year's midterm elections and beyond.

"We're going to reward work, not just wealth," he said, adding an explicit rejection of four decades of Republican orthodoxy on the economy. "Trickle-down economics has never worked. It's time to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out."

Democrats hailed Biden's focus on jobs and the economy, with some arguing that the party will benefit politically for it.

"These are all kitchen-table issues," said Michael Halle, a Democratic strategist who worked on Pete Buttigieg's unsuccessful 2020 presidential primary campaign. "This is one of the prime cases of good policy also being good politics."

Congressional Republicans were unified in their opposition to the Covid-19 relief law. And while a group of Senate Republicans offered a scaled-back version of Biden's American Jobs Plan that is more focused on traditional infrastructure, most Democrats put little faith in the idea that Biden will get GOP support for the measure when votes are cast.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Biden's agenda is simply too expensive.

"The president has lots of things he wants to do, but he's spending like crazy — he's proposed in his first hundred days $6 trillion of new spending," Romney said. "It has the potential of jeopardizing our kids' future and socking us with decades of interest costs."

Other Republican lawmakers were less charitable.

GOP strategist Chris Wilson said Republicans won't feel boxed in to vote for Biden's proposals based on current polls. He predicted that Republican candidates will be able to show down-the-line harm to businesses and their workers.

"The fighting will not take place on the general. The fighting will take place on the particular," Wilson said. The effects of Democratic policy "are damaging to people at the bottom of the economic ladder."

Recent political history suggests that the out-of-power party can gain traction just by opposing a president's plans. After former Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., led Republicans in voting uniformly against President Bill Clinton's first budget, the GOP won control of the House in the 1994 midterms. The House flipped again from Democratic to Republican control two years into President Barack Obama's first term and in reverse two years into President Donald Trump's single term.

Biden hopes to buck that trend with an agenda that would put trillions of taxpayer dollars into roads, bridges, broadband, renewable energy, public housing, care for the elderly and children, and preschool and community college, among other priorities. He promised Wednesday that his higher taxes on corporations and on people who make more than $400,000 a year would raise enough revenue to offset his ambitious spending.

"We can do it without increasing the deficit," Biden said.

But some tax experts say his calculations are untested, at best.

"They don't look like they're going to add up to enough to cover the spending," said William McBride, senior vice president of federal tax and economic policy at the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit policy institution.

That may not matter much politically. As much as Republicans are pointing to the costs and the prospects of rising debt, none of them have said they would vote for Biden's two major domestic economic packages if more revenue were raised.

The key for Biden in the short term is to persuade all of his fellow Democrats — and he needs all of them in the Senate and all but a handful in the House — that his agenda is both the right policy and good politics. Democrats are poised to use the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process again in the Senate to enact at least some of his proposals without GOP votes.

Over the longer term, he and his fellow Democrats are likely to make the case to voters that Republicans are obstructing progress. Biden argued Wednesday that his plans are necessary for America to compete against China and other powers in the 21st century.

"I'd like to meet with those who have ideas that are different, that they think are better," he said. "I welcome those ideas, but the rest of the world is not waiting."

The implication: His patience for negotiating with the GOP is limited.