President Joe Biden declared on Wednesday that the United States is "on the move again" 100 days after he took office, in a speech to a joint session of Congress that he used to promote a $1.8 trillion plan he said is needed to compete with China.
Biden appeared in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at an event scaled back this year because of the pandemic, with a small, specially selected group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers arrayed before him, and the first woman to serve as U.S. vice president, Kamala Harris, behind him.
Seizing on the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to advance his priorities at a time of political polarization, Biden told the joint session and millions of people watching on television that "America is ready for a takeoff."
"Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again, turning peril into possibility, crisis into opportunity, setback into strength," Biden said.
He argued that the new spending and tax-credit package, which together with an earlier infrastructure and jobs plan, totals around $4 trillion, rivaling the annual federal budget "is a once-in-a-generation investment vital to America's future."
"Tonight, I come to talk about crisis and opportunity," he said. "About rebuilding our nation and revitalizing our democracy. And winning the future for America."
Biden argued that the spending plans were needed to keep up with China, which his administration sees as a major strategic challenger.
"China and other countries are closing in fast," he said.
He said he had spent a lot of time talking to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"He's deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world. He and others, autocrats, think that democracy can't compete in the 21st century with autocracies. It takes too long to get consensus," he said.
Biden is trying to thread the needle between Republicans opposed to more spending and the tax increases needed to pay for it, and liberal Democrats who believe Biden needs more aggressive plans.
The Democratic president spoke of a willingness to speak with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to come to an agreement. He is to meet the top Democratic and Republican lawmakers at the White House on May 12 to try to find common ground.
His plan includes $1 trillion in spending on education and childcare over 10 years and $800 billion in tax credits aimed at middle- and low-income families, according to a White House fact sheet. It also includes $200 billion for free, universal preschool and $109 billion for free community college regardless of income for two years, the White House said.
The American Families Plan and the infrastructure and jobs plan the White House introduced this month could represent the most significant government transformation of the economy in decades.
PROPOSED TAX OVERHAUL
To pay for the plans, Biden has proposed an overhaul of the U.S. tax system. Wednesday's "American Families Plan" is funded by raising the top marginal tax rate for the wealthiest Americans to 39.6% from its current 37%.
It nearly doubles the tax on investment income known as capital gains for Americans who earn more than $1 million. The $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan is funded by an increase in corporate taxes.
News of the capital gains tax proposal caused stock markets to drop briefly last week.
The Biden administration says the tax reform plan is designed to reward work, not wealth, and "reform the tax code so that the wealthy have to play by the same rules as everyone else."
After Biden laid out his aims to reshape the U.S. economy, Republican Senator Tim Scott argued that the Democratic agenda would divide Americans, lower wages and shrink the U.S. economy.
A rising star in his party and the sole black Republican in the Senate, Scott said Democrats have no interest in working with Republicans on infrastructure legislation and rejected Biden's American Families Plan as a scheme to put Washington at the center of American life "from the cradle to college."
Biden spent parts of his first speech to Congress reaching out to Republicans. He thanked Senate Republicans for proposing an alternative to his $2.3 trillion infrastructure package and welcomed their aid in addressing the U.S. epidemic of gun violence.
He also fist-bumped House Republican Liz Cheney — a vocal Trump critic — and made friendly references to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"Our president seems like a good man. His speech was full of good words," Scott said in the nationally televised Republican rebuttal to Biden's address.
"But our nation is starving for more than empty platitudes," he added. "Our best future will not come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams."
The South Carolina Republican credited Trump's Operation Warp Speed for the success of the vaccine rollout and attributed the economic recovery to last year's Republican-supported COVID-19 relief.
"This administration inherited a tide that had already turned," Scott said.
A week after a jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd, a handcuffed black man, Biden called on Congress to pass police reform legislation by next month's anniversary of Floyd's death.
Scott, 55, a leading figure in renewed congressional talks on police reform legislation, warned against using race as a political weapon and defended a new Republican state voting law in Georgia that Biden and other Democrats have denounced as a return to Jim Crow segregation.
"Hear me clearly. America is not a racist country," Scott declared.
He said Democratic attacks on Republican state voting laws are a pretext to win support for a Biden-backed democracy bill that Democrats say would strengthen access to the ballot box but Republicans claim would allow a federal takeover of elections.
"This is not about civil rights or our racial past. It's about rigging elections in the future," Scott said in a comment that appeared to evoke Trump's false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
His was not the only speech responding to Biden. Unusually, progressive Democrats tapped Representative Jamaal Bowman to deliver their own address afterward.
Bowman, who is also black, took a sharply different tone: "The proposals that President Biden has put forward over the last few weeks would represent important steps — but don't go as big as we'd truly need," he said.