White House taps populist message as Biden pushes $3.5T plan

President Joe Biden answers a question from a reporter following a virtual meeting from the South Court Auditorium at the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, to discuss the importance of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Joe Biden answers a question from a reporter following a virtual meeting from the South Court Auditorium at the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, to discuss the importance of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The White House is preparing an urgent and populist message for selling President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion “build back better” agenda, even as House committee leaders begin churning out pieces of the forthcoming measure.

In a memo being sent Tuesday to Capitol Hill and obtained by The Associated Press, the administration warns there is no time to waste in passing the package of corporate tax hikes and domestic initiatives by the end of the month.

“We face a fundamental choice in America right now as we rebuild our economy: this time, will everyone get in on the deal?” the memo says. “The time is now. We have to meet the needs in front of us. Not tomorrow, not months from now, not next year. Right now.”

The urgent appeal comes at a crucial time, with House and Senate Democrats hoping to assemble the package by a self-imposed Sept. 15 deadline. It also comes as Biden seeks to refocus on his core campaign promises after a brutal summer, punctuated by spiking COVID-19 cases and the deadly evacuations and withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Illustrating Democrats' ambition as well as the challenges they face, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal released part of his panel's portion of the bill Tuesday.

The Massachusetts Democrat proposed creating a new paid family and medical leave program for workers that is more generous than Biden's own plan and expanding Medicare to provide dental, vision and hearing benefits.

But Neal also did not immediately unveil tax boosts on the rich and corporations that Democrats say will pay for much of the measure's cost, saving that for coming days.

The tax increases are likely to be among the most contentious items in the package, with some moderate Democrats facing tough reelection fights wary of them. But they are crucial if the party wants to support its claim that those tax boosts and other savings will pay for the entire measure, which they say will cost $3.5 trillion over 10 years.

Neal and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are trying to resolve differences over some items in hopes the measure the House ultimately approves will largely face smooth sailing in the Senate, said Democrats who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the legislation's status.

The bill will need the support of virtually every Democrat to clear the closely divided Congress. The Ways and Means panel has jurisdiction over the biggest chunk of the overall bill, and its members plan to begin voting on their piece of the plan on Thursday and Friday.

“This is our historic opportunity to support working families and ensure our economy is stronger, more inclusive, and more resilient for generations to come,” Neal said in a statement.

Republicans say Neal's measure will end up raising taxes on people earning under $400,000, which Biden and Democrats have said will not happen. “They're hiding the ball,” said J.P. Freire, the panel's GOP spokesman.

The committee's proposal will pay for up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for workers, beginning in 2023, including for higher earners. Biden's plan would be phased in over the decade.

Neal's proposal would also phase in Medicare coverage for vision benefits starting in 2022, hearing in 2023 and dental in 2028. Missing in the details he released Tuesday was a proposal to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60, which has been considered unlikely to be included because it is expensive.

It includes increased spending for child care, long-term care facilities, better benefits for workers laid off due to imports and training health care workers. It would also require many employers to automatically enroll workers in savings arrangements like IRAs or 401(k) plans.

Inside the White House, September is seen as a crucial month to make gains on Biden's agenda. In speeches and travel, the president is expected to take a more aggressively populist tone as he rallies support for the plan.

Congressional approval is not guaranteed as Democrats work to fundamentally reorder aspects of the U.S. economy and its governmental support systems.

Democrats are already preparing for an onslaught of attacks over what Republicans call Biden's big tax and spending plans, as the GOP tries to wrest control of Congress by winning House and Senate seats in next year's midterm elections.

In framing the arguments ahead as a choice, the White House is showing congressional Democrats one way the administration plans to counter those Republican attacks.

“Republicans who oppose the Build Back Better agenda have chosen whose side they are on, too,” said the memo from White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield to House Democratic communicators.

“The Build Back Better agenda is about tackling those challenges, and leveling the playing field to ensure the wealthiest and corporations pay their fair share and working families get a fighting chance to succeed and prosper in this country," the memo said.