President Joe Biden made two stops in New Jersey on Monday to boost public awareness of his sweeping domestic agenda as lawmakers in Washington continue to haggle over the final details of the social spending bill.
For weeks, Congress has debated two central bills. One is a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, which passed the U.S. Senate in August. A related package, as proposed by Biden, was originally a $3.5 trillion spending bill to expand the social safety net and address climate change.
That larger bill could ultimately be stripped down to around $1.75 trillion, although a source told the Associated Press the number is within a range that could still increase.
Democrats say they want to hold a vote this week on both the larger reconciliation package still being negotiated with lawmakers and the bipartisan infrastructure deal already passed by the Senate.
“That’s my hope,” the president said of a possible deal before traveling to New Jersey from Delaware Monday morning.
President Biden on Monday first visited East End Elementary School in North Plainfield, N.J., where the school district provides free preschool for all four-year-olds, a program that Biden’s agenda would expand through its child care and pre-k plan.
The president met with a classroom of pre-kindergarten students as they worked on literacy and math skills, asking two in turn: “'Do you like school?” and “Who wants to be an artist?”
Biden then turned his focus to infrastructure in Kearny, N.J., during a speech at an NJ TRANSIT maintenance complex that sits near Portal North Bridge, the busiest rail bridge in the country, which is being replaced with the help of federal funding.
“The Portal Bridge Project is showing why investments like this are so important,” Biden said of the allocations for traditional infrastructure in his agenda. “When the portal bridge was built, it was state-of-the-art, and it really was. But [that was] 110 years ago. Today, it's been called something different: A choke point, a bottleneck, the achilles heel of the Northeast Corridor.”
Before the pandemic, the bridge saw over 450 Amtrak and NJ TRANSIT trains and upwards of 200,000 passengers per day, but was a frequent source of delays due to technical problems from age and other factors. Once the improvements are finished, officials expect the bridge's overall daily capacity to increase by about 14%.
Biden went on to speak about the bipartisan bill as a historic federal investment in all forms of public transit, including the largest in Amtrak since its creation 50 years ago. The president’s affinity for Amtrak is well-known, and he often evokes — as he did during Monday’s address — stories of traveling by train from Delaware to Washington and back each day during his time in the Senate following the death of his first wife and daughter.
“I'm a train guy, because it also is the single most significant way we can deal with air pollution, the single most significant way we can deal with global warming,” Biden said Monday. “It's going to help the region's vital maritime industry as well by making the movement of ships and bridges safer and more efficient."
"Look, with my infrastructure bill we're going to make sure projects like this are just the beginning," he added.
Biden also touched on the funding for universal pre-k in his proposal, saying his Build Back Better agenda will “make two years of high quality preschool available to every child in America.”
Some of the social services included in Biden’s original proposal will likely be scrapped through the reconciliation process, with free community college reportedly on the chopping block, and a probable reduction of paid parental leave from 12 weeks down to four. Universal pre-k appears to still be included in the current package, although Biden did not answer shouted questions from reporters on the topic Monday afternoon.
The president and senior White House staff have met with key Senate Democrats over the past several days in an attempt to work out the final pieces of his domestic agenda, including how the package will be paid for through taxes and tax enforcement.
The president met with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin in Delaware and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. on Sunday, a conversation the White House called “constructive.”
“We're almost there. We're making progress,” said Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to reporters on Air Force One Monday morning.
“He wants to make significant progress. He wants to see a deal. So we're on track on doing exactly that,” she added
A source told The Associated Press that Manchin is on board with Biden's proposals for new taxes on billionaires and certain corporations, a potential breakthrough in the ongoing negotiations.
"I think that corporations should be paying at least a minimum," Manchin said to reporters on Monday, a seeming indication that he was amenable to the president’s tax proposal.
Manchin also voiced optimism on the discussions Monday, telling reporters that he believes there will be an accord on a "conceptual framework" for the measure this week.
President Biden will travel to Rome on Thursday and the U.N. Climate Change Conference next Monday, and top Democrats have said they hope to have at least a final framework for a deal by the time he leaves the country.