Inflation fears hang over Biden’s social spending plans

Joe Biden’s signature $1.75tn investment in America’s social safety net is set for changes in the US Senate as the president comes under pressure to refocus his administration on taming inflation.

Biden has struggled for months with declining public approval ratings, which have hit a low in recent weeks amid discontent over rising prices, supply chain disruptions and the lingering Covid-19 pandemic.

A CBS News/YouGov poll out on Sunday showed two-thirds of Americans disapproved of the president’s handling of inflation. Eighty-two per cent of respondents said items they usually buy are “costing more than they did”.

The issue has prevented Biden from receiving a boost from two legislative victories in as many weeks — the US House of Representatives has passed both his flagship $1.2tn bipartisan infrastructure bill and the larger, $1.75tn Build Back Better package. But while Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law, the social spending package — which includes subsidies for early childhood education, tax credits for families with children, an expansion of public healthcare for senior citizens and some $550bn in programmes to combat climate change — faces a tougher time in the Senate.

Jon Tester, the Democratic senator from Montana, conceded on Sunday that the Senate will make “some changes” to the House bill. “But, look, we’re dealing with reasonable people here,” Tester told NBC News. “I think we can come up with a bill that’s a very, very good bill that works.”

Democrats intend to pass the bill before Christmas without the support of Republicans. But the sweeping spending package is likely to be subject to weeks of intraparty wrangling in the upper chamber of Congress, in part to appeal to the two most conservative Democratic senators: West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Both lawmakers have raised concerns about the size and scope of the bill, echoing Republican arguments that the package will unnecessarily add to the federal deficit at a time when more and more Americans are fretting about rising consumer costs.

Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, argued on Sunday that Build Back Better would actually lower inflation if it were to become law. “Experts across the board have looked at [Build Back Better] and have concluded that it won’t increase inflation because it’s paid for,” Deese said in an interview with Fox News Sunday. “But what it will do is it will lower costs.”

However, the independent Congressional Budget Office, which provides cost estimates for significant pieces of legislation, said last week that the bill would add $367bn to the federal deficit over the next decade, while separate White House proposals to beef up tax enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service would reduce the deficit by $127bn over the same period.

The White House has pushed back on the assessments, arguing the CBO was underestimating how much revenue the tax changes would rake in for the Treasury. The administration produced its own estimates saying Build Back Better and the IRS changes would amount to a $112.5bn decrease in the federal deficit.

“This bill is going to be the biggest cost-cutting bill for working class in American families in decades in this country, and it’s going to go at costs that are persistent problems for the American people in their lives,” Deese said, pointing to provisions in the bill that would lead to lower prescription drug costs for seniors and subsidise childcare for lower and middle income Americans.

Several elements of the legislation are likely to be sticking points in the Senate. House Democrats included in the bill a tax change that would benefit wealthy homeowners that has been opposed by progressive senators, and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, insisted on a new scheme to provide four weeks’ paid family and parental leave for all workers over the objections of Manchin.

Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic senator from New York who has pushed for 12 weeks of paid leave, told CBS News on Sunday that she was “optimistic” that she could “continue to talk” with Manchin about how to include paid leave in the final package. She added that the West Virginia senator was “in the driver’s seat on how to pay for these proposals”.

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