Democrat Seeks to Wedge Child Welfare Into Infrastructure Bill

  • Sen. Casey wants to build on aid in Covid response bills
  • Republicans hew to plans to fix roads, bridges

A top Senate Democrat wants to include money for health care, child care, and nutrition as part of President Joe Biden’s signature infrastructure legislation, setting the stage for a battle with Republicans who say such a measure should focus on roads, bridges, and other needs.

Sen. Bob Casey, chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families, could introduce legislation for a package of proposals as soon as next week. The framework will also address child abuse and wealth inequality.

Absent Republican support, Casey (Pa.) and fellow Democrats are counting on passing major new spending proposals through reconciliation, a procedure that allows the Senate to pass budget-related bills with a simple majority. Democrats are expected to use the tactic to advance their infrastructure, jobs, and social spending priorities, avoiding a filibuster that can stall votes.

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Sen. Bob Casey arrives at the Capitol for a vote May 18, 2020.

Casey’s focus on the infrastructure package reflects Democrats’ limited chances to pass major new spending. They will need a unified caucus in the 50-50 chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking any tie.

Meanwhile, talks between Biden and GOP lawmakers led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) on a bipartisan surface transportation bill stalled earlier this week after the two sides failed to agree on new spending and tax increases the White House wants. A separate group of Republican and Democratic senators agreed to a $1.2 trillion plan on Thursday that is limited to core physical infrastructure.

Bipartisan Senate Group Seals $1.2 Trillion Infrastructure Deal

The federal response to Covid-19 over the last year included billions of dollars in new spending on everything from unemployment insurance and payrolls for shuttered businesses, to stimulus checks and expanded tax credits. Casey first introduced his legislative framework before the pandemic, and wants to build on federal relief with permanent benefits for children.

“If we want to out-compete China, we’ve got to invest in kids. If we want to have the highest-skilled workforce in the world, we’ve go to invest in kids,” he said. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing for the economy.”

Tax Credits, Added Money

Casey’s plan uses a mix of tax credits and increased federal spending for programs such as child care and nutrition. Among them:

  • Permanently extending the child tax credits passed in the American Rescue Plan (Public Law 117-2) that expire at the end of the year. The Covid relief bill expanded child tax credits from $2,000 to $3,000 per child, and $3,600 for children younger than 6. It also extended the tax credit to 17-year-olds.
  • Granting automatic Medicaid eligibility for all children through age 18. Currently Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program cover roughly 80% of low-income children but 4 million remained uninsured before the pandemic.
  • Sending new funding to states for child care and Head Start programs for early childhood education. That money would complement legislation Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced to expand access to child care (S. 1360).
  • Create $500 savings accounts for children from low- and middle-income families.

“Thinking about children in a holistic way makes a lot of sense,” said Julie Kashen, the director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank that backs economic, racial, and gender equity. “When it comes to children, we often say we only have the money to do one of these things. The reality is we need to be much more expansive in our thinking.”

The heaviest lift Casey is proposing will likely be a permanent extension of the Child Tax Credit expansion, the senator said, because of the constraints of addressing multiple priorities through reconciliation.

The White House has backed a five-year extension of the tax credit as part of another major spending package, which fell short of Senate Democrats’ demands that the extension be permanent.

‘Last Train’

Biden has offered dual infrastructure packages, with one focused on traditional infrastructure spending such as roads, bridges, and workforce development, while the other proposes social spending including child care and free community college. The two packages, dubbed the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, would surpass more than $4 trillion in new spending.

Top committees have yet to release legislative text for the two plans as the White House seeks an infrastructure deal with Republicans. Even if a bipartisan agreement emerges, the price tag likely wouldn’t come close to the kind of spending Democrats want for social programs, Casey said.

Legislation advancing the White House infrastructure plans offers the best chance in the next several years to advance child benefits, Casey said.

“The biggest opportunity for the next several years would be some combination of Jobs and Families together,” he said. “This reconciliation bill could be the last train leaving the station for a long time on these issues.”

GOP Support

A spokeswoman for Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.), the top Republican on the children and families subcommittee, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the plan. GOP lawmakers have criticized the White House infrastructure plans as overly costly liberal wish lists.

Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), one of the Republican negotiators working on an infrastructure deal, blamed the lack of progress on the White House this week for refusing to moderate Biden’s demands for higher spending and taxes.

Biden, GOP’s Capito End Infrastructure Talks Without a Deal

The downside of pursuing policies without Republican support is they may not clear reconciliation rules, which require that any provisions of legislation relate directly to federal revenue and spending, said Linda Smith, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Development Initiative.

“We’ve had very good bipartisan support for child care in particular, but early childhood across the board,” she said. “We would really like to see that continue.”

Casey said he hopes to get some bipartisan backing but doesn’t envision significant GOP support, making reconciliation even more critical to passing a comprehensive strategy for children’s welfare.

“We’ve already moved the ball forward, at least by way of the initial investment,” he said. “We have to hit this hard when the nation’s attention and the attention of policymakers is focused on major initiatives.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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