In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden on Wednesday urged Congress to pass a nearly $2 trillion plan to help American families – spending that would build on his administration’s efforts during his first 100 days in office to end the coronavirus pandemic and restore the American economy.
Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made history as the first women, next in line to the presidency, to occupy the two prominent seats on the dais behind Biden.
After inheriting “a nation in crisis,” Biden told the Congress that a day shy of his 100th day in office, “America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”
Only 200 members of Congress viewed the address in-person due to COVID health and safety regulations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III stood in for the rest of the cabinet, while Supreme Court Justice John Roberts represented the high court. The House chamber normally holds about 1,600 people.
The nationally televised Biden speech mixed reminders of what his presidency already has tried to achieve with calls to go bigger – and spend bigger – on a host of new programs.
The centerpiece of Biden’s address was a proposed “American Families Plan,” which would expand pre-K education by two years and make community colleges free; provide affordable child care to lower- and middle-income families; allow up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, and extend a series of tax credits and tax cuts for millions of families.
“When this nation made 12 years of public education universal in the last century, it made us the best-educated and best-prepared nation in the world,” Biden said, adding “the world is catching up. They are not waiting.”
To pay for his plan, the president has proposed increasing the tax rate for the top 1% of earners back up to 39.6%. It was lowered to 37% by former President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans in 2017.
“I will not add to the tax burden of the middle class of this country. They’re already paying enough,” Biden said. “What I’ve proposed is fair. It’s fiscally responsible. It raised the revenue to pay for the plans I’ve proposed that will create millions of jobs and grow the economy.”
Biden’s speech also asked Congress to pass legislation on police reform, just one week after former Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on three charges stemming from the murder of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis.
“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America,” Biden said. “Now is our opportunity to make real progress.”
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed in the Democratic-led House in March and is awaiting action in the Senate.
The president also repeated his call for lawmakers to pass election reform and voting rights laws, both of which are being resisted by the GOP.
“More people voted in the last presidential election than ever before in our history – in the middle of one of the worst pandemics ever,” Biden said. “That should be celebrated. Instead it’s being attacked.”
A bill to protect the rights of LGBTQ Americans also must get to his desk, Biden said, adding that he wanted transgender people to know “the president has your back.”
In support of the right to unionize, Biden called on the members of Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. He also urged them to pass the $15 minimum wage and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would ensure equal pay for women.
The president reiterated his determination to pass a $2 trillion infrastructure package, which he called “a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America” and the greatest job plan since World War II.
He said he welcomed Republican ideas on infrastructure spending, but warned “doing nothing is not an option.”
Biden said he wanted to expand cancer research, a topic close to Biden’s heart, as his late son, Beau Biden, died from brain cancer in 2015. He said the National Institutes of Health should embark on a massive effort to create a new center focused on breakthroughs for preventing and treating diseases including not only cancer but also Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
“I can think of no more worthy investment. And I know of nothing that is more bipartisan,” the president said. “Let’s end cancer as we know it. It’s within our power.”
Biden also urged Congress to tackle a host of issues that have eluded resolution for years: stricter gun laws, reform of immigration laws and lowering prescription drug costs.
While Democrats generally applauded the president’s proposals, Republicans were highly critical.
“Our president seems like a good man. His speech was full of good words,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, said in the official Republican response.
“Our nation is starving for more than empty platitudes,” he said. “We need policies and progress that bring us closer together.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, called Biden’s speech a “bait and switch.”
“The ‘bait’ was he was going to be a moderate, a unifying force and bring us all together,” the senator said. “The ‘switch’ is that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, for all practical purposes, won the debate in the Democratic Party over what it ought to look like.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, tweeted after the address: “This whole thing could have just been an email.”
But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, called Biden’s speech “an agenda of justice, equality, security, and opportunity.”
“I was glad to hear President Biden set out his vision and call our country to the higher purpose of living up to the promise of its Founders: that all our people must not only be treated equally under our laws but that all equally deserve a chance to make it In America,” Hoyer said.
Pelosi characterized Biden’s remarks as a “unifying message of resilience, resolve and hope.”
“The Democratic Congress looks forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration to enact this historic vision for lower health care costs, for bigger paychecks, for cleaner government, for the people,” the speaker said.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, praised the president’s address, saying Biden “spoke to the country with confidence and conviction; seriousness and resolve; realism about the challenges we face; and optimism about America’s future.”
“The best way to face these challenges is together. President Biden has already worked to bridge the divides of this nation, and we must forge ahead,” Van Hollen said.
Biden began his address by marking his administration’s progress in the first 100 days in fighting the pandemic.
“After I promised 100 million COVID-19 vaccine shots in 100 days, we will have provided over 220 million COVID shots in 100 days,” Biden said. “Our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history is one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen.”