News & Politics

Democratic governors hold out hope for Build Back Better legislation

Governor Tom Wolf

Governor Tom Wolf The Office of Governor Tom Wolf

By Kery Murakami

As Senate Democrats look for a way to dislodge President Joe Biden’s stalled roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better domestic spending bill, congressional leaders and the president acknowledge they will have to scale it back to overcome the opposition of holdout Sen. Joe Manchin. 

Democratic governors, visiting Washington, D.C. over the weekend for a National Governors Association meeting, said they understand the politics in play here, but that they’ll be disappointed if the bill is significantly downsized. “I would like everything,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said, when asked in an interview about what elements of the sweeping bill are the most important to preserve.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis described early childhood programs in the package as crucial for kids. “It's also important for our workforce and for our families,” he said.

Biden’s proposal, among other things, provides money to states to subsidize child care and includes a $109 billion plan for the federal government to work with states to offer preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. That program would gradually shift about 40% of costs to states that opt into it. 

But there are no guarantees that the new programs for children will make it into a final bill.

“I hope that it's an area that they can find a consensus on. Federal assistance in meeting the real-life needs of families would not only help the next generation, but it would improve our economy today by empowering people to be able to work,” Polis said.

No Clear Path Forward

At this point, congressional Democrats appear to have no clear plan for how to proceed after their hopes of passing the package hit a wall, when Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said in December he could not go along with a bill he considers too expensive. Democrats need the support of all 50 members of their Senate caucus, including Manchin, to pass the domestic spending legislation.

Biden has floated the idea of proceeding with only the portions of the package that all Democrats can support. 

The president has flagged the pre-kindergarten proposal, as well as the bill’s measures to tackle climate change as aspects Democrats can potentially rally around.

There’s no consensus, though, on a strategy to solidify support for a modified package. Democrats like Sen. Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, have suggested that the climate programs should be a priority. Markey has noted that there tends to be strong support in the party for these proposals and argues that the nation must act quickly to combat the warming climate and the problems it is causing. 

For states, passing the roughly $570 billion in climate and infrastructure programs in the bill would mean additional funding, like a $2 billion grant program for forest restoration and resiliency projects, $3 billion for "environmental and climate justice" block grants and $100 million in competitive grants open to local governments to improve access to urban parks and outdoor space.

Meanwhile, other Democratic senators, including Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Ron Wyden of Oregon, are demanding that an extension of the American Rescue Plan Act’s expanded child tax credit, be the “centerpiece” of any revised Build Back Better bill.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, declined to comment on the possibility of a scaled-back Build Back Better bill, without seeing the details. Still, she said, “there are a lot of important things in the bill,” citing the child tax credit expansion as an example.

Manchin, however, opposes the tax credit expansion, which expired in December, without creating a work requirement for parents.

As Democrats squabble over what to cut, Wolf, the Pennsylvania governor, said he is disappointed that some of Biden’s original ideas for the bill, like making community college free, were already dropped when the measure passed the House in November.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown raised concerns about another portion of the bill with an uncertain future—about $175 billion for affordable housing programs. 

“There are key investments that need to be made around housing,” she said, noting her state's challenges on this front. “The fact that the federal government or Congress would be willing to make a significant investment in housing would be incredibly huge.”

In addition to Manchin’s opposition, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, has withheld support for the Build Back Better bill.

Sinema’s role in blocking the measure, as well as sinking a plan to change the filibuster to pass the Democrats’ voting rights measure, drew praise from her state’s governor, Republican Doug Ducey.

“I give her credit. I think she's tough,” Ducey said in an interview. “She ran on being an independent and she's demonstrated true independence.”

Republican Support for ARPA

Some Republican governors on hand at the NGA meeting acknowledged that they are happy Democrats in a partisan vote, passed the American Rescue Plan Act, and its $350 billion in direct pandemic recovery aid for state and local governments. 

Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson declined to criticize Senate Republicans, all of whom voted against the aid. “The last thing I want to do would be to be critical, or misunderstand some of the objections that they legitimately had,” he said. But Hutchinson also said he’s “very delighted” the funding was approved. “We're gonna put it to good use. We're gonna manage it well,” he added.”

Ducey described plans to use ARPA funds to “make long-term investments for the people in Arizona.”

“We want to get our kids caught up, eliminate learning loss, get broadband out to our rural communities,” he said.

The Arizona governor gave congressional Democrats some credit for passing the aid package. “Listen, the country's been through a very difficult couple of years,” Ducey said. “The federal government saw fit to print and borrow a lot of money to make sure people didn't fall through the cracks and that there was a strong social safety net. On that front, I would give high marks.” 

That said, Republican governors made clear that they don’t want more federal spending like what’s proposed in the Build Back Better legislation. “What I would say is, ‘Thank you. Now stop trying to help us,’ and let the economy and the natural dynamism of the American people come to life,” Ducey said.

Hutchinson took a similar stance on Democrats’ proposed additional spending. “That is an area where Democrats and Republican governors disagree, and I think there's a difference of philosophy as to whether that is needed,” he said.

Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.