HELENA — This is the first of a two-part series on the contents of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better program, and what Montana’s two U.S. senators are saying about it.
As congressional Democrats prepare to tackle President Biden’s ambitious social-spending proposal known as Build Back Better, Montana’s two U.S. senators remain on opposite sides of the political divide – with one labeling it “socialism” and the other calling it a vital push to help the economy and working families.
The $1.75 trillion plan, in its current form, includes a laundry list of programs designed to help middle-income families: Subsidies for child care, universal pre-kindergarten funding, affordable housing assistance, job training, and expansion of health-care coverage and assistance.
When asked if the federal government should be providing this level of help to its citizens, Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines says no.
“There’s a fundamental battle going on, a battle of freedom and less government versus a massive expansion of the federal government’s socialism,” he told MTN News in a recent interview. “This bill is Bernie Sanders’, Joe Biden’s and Nancy Pelosi’s dream bill.”
Daines also calls the measure a “hyper-inflation bomb” that will put more inflationary pressure on the economy, with increased federal spending and green-energy policies that will drive up the cost of fossil fuels.
Yet Democratic Sen. Jon Tester told MTN News that lower- and middle-income families are having increasing trouble affording basic necessities, and giving them a hand will help not only them, directly, but also an economy still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I hear a lot about (the shortage of) child care and how it’s keeping people out of the workforce and I hear about how businesses who can’t recruit people because there is no place for them to live,” he says. “You either come to Washington, D.C., to try to get something done, or be an obstructionist. I came here to get something done.”
Those who label it “socialism” don’t appear to know what socialism even means, Tester says, calling it a patently false statement.
“I think if you look at what we’re trying to do here, is we’re trying to make sure the economy is hitting on all its cylinders,” he says. “The truth is, this is about the federal government helping working families, helping small businesses be successful.”
Still, Tester says he expects the plan to undergo many changes before it finally passes, if it does – and that he wants to make sure it treats the average Montanan well, including its tax provisions.
The U.S. House could take a vote on the measure as early as this week, after which it would advance to the U.S. Senate, where Democrats have a tenuous 51-50 majority – and only if moderates like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona go along.
Tester says it could get wrapped up by the end of the year, but “we’ll see.”
“That’s all very, very much in flux right now,” he said earlier this week.
Contents of the latest version of the bill include:
Child care: Funding that would assure families pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care. For a family earning $75,000 a year, that’s about $440 a month – half or less than half of the going rate for child care in many Montana cities. Tester says there also could be money to establish additional day-care centers.
Housing: An expansion of rental assistance and down-payment assistance for home-buyers, and construction or rehabilitation of more than 1 million housing units nationwide.
Higher education: Increasing the maximum Pell Grant award by $550. About 11,500 Montana college students have these grants.
Universal pre-kindergarten: Funding to provide free preschool to thousands of additional children in Montana, with parents able to send their kids to the school of their choice.
Guaranteed, paid family leave: Some form of this proposal has been in or out of the plan, as it goes through changes. It appears to be in the latest version, with four weeks of guaranteed leave, for new parents or to care for a loved one.
Health care: Expands Medicare to cover hearing aids, continues expanded assistance for people buying individual health insurance, expands coverage to more lower-income citizens, expands home-based care for the elderly and the disabled and allows Medicare to bargain down prescription-drug prices.
Job training: Increased funding for job training through grant programs, to reverse a steady decline in this federal funding.
Climate change/clean energy: Investments in clean-energy technologies, increasing the tax credit for purchasing American-made electric vehicles to $12,500, and multiple other initiatives.
Daines is critical of the climate-change initiatives, alleging they will increase the cost of traditional fossil fuels, like oil, gas and coal – but his over-arching criticism usually focuses on what he calls the “reckless spending” of the bill and its tax-increase provisions, rather than talking about the programs it would fund.
“This would create more pressure on the economy, in terms of inflation – that’s why I call it a hyper-inflation bomb,” he says. “We’ve got to stop it.”
Tester says his support is focused mostly on four things: Child care, affordable housing, reducing prescription drug prices and blunting climate change.
“I just think if you’re going to get the workforce back, child care is really important,” he says. “(And) without that housing – there are communities out there who can’t hire schoolteachers, because they don’t have any place for them to live.”
On climate change, Tester says the idea is not to undercut fossil fuels, but to help all types of energy move toward cleaner products, through investment in research and development and other incentives.
“Look, we developed a vaccine for Covid in one year,” he says. “This country does great things when you unleash the power, and I think the federal government can unleash that power with some support through dollars and/or tax incentives.”
Next: How do Democrats plan to pay for the $1.75 trillion, 10-year plan? What are the bill’s tax changes, and how will they affect Montana?