WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden took to the dais of the House for his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, pitching an $1.8 trillion investment in children, families and education that would fundamentally transform the role government plays in American life, while also calling on lawmakers to negotiate Medicare prescription drug costs.
Biden touted his administration’s successful efforts in facilitating COVID-19 vaccinations for 200 million people within his first 100 days in the White House. He had originally set a goal for 100 million vaccinations by his first 100 days.
This year’s address had a historic look: For the first time, a female vice president, Kamala Harris, was seated behind the chief executive. And she was next to another woman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both clad in pastel.
The first ovation came as Biden greeted, "madam vice president."
The entire House setting was unlike that for any of Biden’s predecessors, with members of Congress spread out, a sole Supreme Court justice in attendance and many Republicans citing "scheduling conflicts" to stay away. There was no need for a "designated survivor," with so many Cabinet members not there, and the chamber was so sparsely populated that individual claps could be heard echoing off the walls.
Biden said that he inherited the White House amid "the worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War."
"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 added.
The president addressed Congress at 9 p.m. ET inside the House chamber. The speech was being broadcast live on television and streamed in its entirety on NewsNOW from FOX.
Biden touts first 100 days, vaccination effort
Biden marked his first 100 days in office as the nation emerges from a menacing mix of crises, making his case before a pared-down gathering of mask-wearing legislators because of pandemic restrictions.
For Biden, whose moment has been nearly a half century in the making, his speech also provided an update on combating the COVID-19 crisis he was elected to tame, showcasing hundreds of millions of vaccinations and relief checks delivered to help offset the devastation wrought by a virus that has killed more than 573,000 people in the United States.
"Tonight, I can say because of you — the American people – our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history is one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen," Biden said.
"What else have we done these first 100 days? We kept our commitment and we are sending $1,400 rescue checks to 85% of all American households. We’ve already sent more than 160 million checks out the door. It’s making a difference," he continued.
$1 trillion American Families Plan unveiled
The highlight of the speech was Biden’s American Families Plan, which was unveiled in Wednesday’s address.
The $1 trillion-plus package is part of an ambitious next phase of Biden’s massive infrastructure investment program which is focused on so-called human infrastructure including child care, health care, education and other core aspects of the household architecture that undergird everyday life for countless Americans.
The American Families Plan comes after Biden’s announcement in March of his American Jobs Plan, a $2.3 trillion infrastructure investment to be funded by a corporate tax hike.
The plan includes an extension of free universal public education.
"When this nation made 12 years of public education universal in the last century, it made us the best-educated and best-prepared nation in the world. But the world is catching up. They are not waiting," Biden said.
Under the new plan, Biden proposed adding four more years of public education provided by the federal government for every American.
"The research shows that when a young child goes to school—not day care—they are far more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college. And then we add two years of free community college," Biden explained. "And we will increase Pell Grants and investment in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal colleges, and minority-serving institutions."
The American Families Plan would be paid for by hiking taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Americans, in keeping with the president’s vow not to raise taxes on those making less than $400,000 a year.
The plan also proposes having eligible families receive at least $250 monthly per child through 2025, extending the enhanced tax credit that was part of Biden’s COVID-19 aid. There would be more than $400 billion for subsidized child care and free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
Another combined $425 billion would go to permanently reduce health insurance premiums for people who receive coverage through the Affordable Care Act, as well a national paid family and medical leave program. Further spending would be directed toward Pell Grants, historically Black and tribal institutions and allow people to could attend community college tuition-free for two years.
Biden’s American Jobs Plan
Biden repeatedly hammered home how his plans would put Americans back to work, restoring the millions of jobs lost to the virus.
"The American Jobs Plan will help millions of people get back to their jobs and their careers. Two million women have dropped out of the workforce during this pandemic, too often because they couldn’t get the care they need for their family, their children," Biden said.
The plan includes a shift from fossil fuels in order to combat the perils of climate change. It also kickstarts an effort to compete with the technology and public investments made by China, the world’s second-largest economy which is fast gaining on the United States’ dominant position.
The largest chunk of the proposal includes $621 billion for roads, bridges, public transit, electric vehicle charging stations and other transportation infrastructure.
"It creates jobs to upgrade our transportation infrastructure. Jobs modernizing roads, bridges and highways. Jobs building ports and airports, rail corridors and transit lines. It’s clean water," Biden said.
An additional $111 billion would go to replace lead water pipes and upgrade sewers. Broadband internet would blanket the country for $100 billion. Separately, $100 billion would upgrade the power grid to deliver clean electricity. Homes would get retrofitted, schools modernized, workers trained and hospitals renovated under the plan, which also seeks to strengthen U.S. manufacturing.
"Today, up to 10 million homes and more than 400,000 schools and child care centers have pipes with lead in them, including for drinking water, a clear and present danger to our children’s health," Biden said. "The American Jobs Plan creates jobs replacing 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines so every American, so every child – can turn on the faucet and be certain to drink clean water."
The new construction could keep the economy running hot, coming on the heels of Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Economists already estimate it could push growth above 6% this year.
Biden hopes to pass an infrastructure plan by summer, which could mean relying solely on the slim Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate.
Free preschool, higher wages, tax credits for low-income families
Biden called for free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children, a $200 billion investment to be rolled out as part of his sweeping American Families Plan.
"The research shows that when a young child goes to school—not day care—they are far more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college," Biden said.
The administration said the historic investment would benefit 5 million children and save the average family $13,000. It calls for providing federal funds to help the states offer preschool, with teachers and other employees earning $15 an hour.
"These investments will give American children a head start and pave the way for the best-educated generation in U.S. history," the administration said.
Ahead of Wednesday's speech, lawmakers pushed to make sure key priorities were included.
A group of leading centrist and progressive Democrats met late Tuesday with the White House to discuss its priority of making permanent the Child Tax Credit, which was increased to as much as $300 a month as part of a COVID-19 relief package. Right now, that benefit expires in 2022 and Biden has suggested extending it to 2025.
And Biden delivered. The president called in his speech to extend the tax credit through 2025.
"In March we expanded a tax credit for every child in a family," Biden said. "Up to a $3,000 Child Tax Credit for children over 6 — and $3,600 for children under 6. With two parents, two kids, that’s up to $7,200 in your pocket to help take care of your family."
"This will help more than 65 million children and help cut child poverty in half this year. Together, let’s extend the Child Tax Credit at least through the end of 2025," Biden said, to applause.
Biden has pushed to establish a $15 hourly minimum wage nationwide for all workers, making it a part of his COVID-19 relief package. But the Senate parliamentarian said the wage hike did not follow the budgetary rules that allowed the $1.9 trillion plan to pass with a simple majority, so it was not included in the bill that became law in March.
But Biden pushed the wage increase once again in his address Wednesday, saying, "By the way – let’s also pass the $15 minimum wage. No one should work 40 hours a week and still live below the poverty line."
On Tuesday, Biden signed an executive order to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour for federal contractors, giving a pay bump to hundreds of thousands of workers.
The action means that federal workers who currently earn the minimum of $10.95 an hour would receive a 37% pay hike, though the increase would be rolled out gradually, according to the terms of the order.
The order follows one from former President Barack Obama, signed in 2014, which raised the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour.
The president also praised union efforts in his Wednesday address and called for gender equity in the workplace.
"We need to ensure greater equity and opportunity for women," Biden said. "Let’s get the Paycheck Fairness Act to my desk for equal pay. It’s long past time."
Health care, Affordable Care Act and prescription drug costs
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi secured one top priority for Democrats, lowering the cost of buying health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
Biden's plan is expected to extend the enhanced health insurance subsidies that had been approved as part of COVID-19 relief, rather than allowing them to expire in 2022, according to a Democratic aide granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.
"800,000 families are on a Medicaid waiting list right now to get homecare for their aging parent or loved one with a disability," Biden said on Wednesday night.
"This plan will help these families and create jobs for our caregivers with better wages and better benefits," Biden added.
On March 23, Biden announced that his administration would extend the deadline for Americans to sign up for health care to Aug. 15 in celebration of the 11th anniversary since the Affordable Care Act became law.
Biden's speech to Congress also called on lawmakers to lower prescription drug costs by acting this year to empower Medicare to negotiate prices. Medicare’s prescription drug benefit is delivered through private insurers, and the program is currently barred by law from negotiating prices directly with pharmaceutical companies.
As a candidate, Biden promised to change that, but he has yet to submit legislation to Congress. A White House official said the president remains committed to working for reduced prescription drug prices.
Pelosi is moving ahead with her plan to use expected savings from lower spending on drugs to expand Medicare benefits, capping prescription drug bills for seniors. But Republicans are solidly opposed to Medicare negotiations, and some Senate Democrats have qualms. It’s unclear if Pelosi’s approach can get through the Senate.
Taxes, capital gains and the wealth inequality gap
Biden said he wants to raise the top tax rate on the most affluent families from 37% to 39.6%. People earning in excess of $1 million a year would see their rate on capital gains — the profits from a sale of a stock or home — nearly double from 20% to 39.6%, which would mean the wealthiest Americans could no longer pay at a lower rate than many families who identify as middle class.
He took aim at a hallmark achievement of the Trump presidency, saying the 2017 tax cuts failed to deliver on Republicans’ promise of strong growth. It was a recognition of how narrow the common ground is between the two parties.
"I will not impose any tax increases on people making less than $400,000 a year. It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1% of Americans to pay their fair share," Biden said.
"Just pay their fair share," he added.
Biden called for an end to continued manipulation of American’s tax system by the extremely wealthy. He urged reform on corporate taxes in order to help pay for public investments and infrastructure.
"We’re going to get rid of the loopholes that allow Americans who make more than $1 million a year pay a lower rate on their capital gains than working Americans pay on their work," Biden said.
Climate crisis and a bid to ‘save the planet’
In his address Wednesday, Biden called for cooperation with competing nations like China to battle the existential threat of climate change.
"The climate crisis is not our fight alone, either. It’s a global fight," Biden said.
He talked about his efforts to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement after Trump, during his tenure, ordered the United States to exit the accord early on in his presidency.
Biden called for continued support in an effort "save the planet."
"The United States accounts for less than 15% of carbon emissions. The rest of the world accounts for 85%," Biden said.
"That’s why – I kept my commitment to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on my first day in office. And I kept my commitment to convene a climate summit right here in America, with all of the major economies of the world – from China and Russia to India and the European Union in my first 100 days," Biden added.
Diplomacy and relations with China, Russia, North Korea, Iran
Biden also took on an issue rarely confronted by an American president, saying that in order to compete with autocracies like China, the nation needs "to prove that democracy still works" after his predecessor's false claims of election fraud and the ensuing attack on the U.S. Capitol.
"The investments I’ve proposed tonight also advance a foreign policy that benefits the middle class. That means making sure every nation plays by the same rules in the global economy, including China," Biden said.
Biden stood firm on his intent to defend American interests, specifically striking down what he described as "unfair trading practices" from China that he said undercut American workers and industries.
Biden added that he has told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he intends to keep a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific, a highly contested region.
Biden also directly spoke to Russia, saying the country’s interference in American elections will "have consequences."
"I responded in a direct and proportionate way to Russia’s interference in our elections and cyber—attacks on our government and businesses – and they did both of those things and I did respond," Biden said.
But he urged cooperation, citing a recent agreement between Russia and the U.S. on the New START Treaty on nuclear arms.
Biden added that America and its allies are looking closely into imminent nuclear threats from countries like Iran and North Korea.
"On Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs that present a serious threat to America’s security and world security – we will be working closely with our allies to address the threats posed by both of these countries through diplomacy and stern deterrence," Biden said.
Race, policing and AAPI hate
After touching on the United States’ exit from a "generational'" war on terror in Afghanistan, Biden said the country must deal with "the most lethal terrorist threat to the homeland today, White supremacist terrorism."
Biden said the country must face this threat to "heal the soul of this nation."
Speaking on George Floyd, whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked worldwide protests, Biden urged further progress in a "changed" world.
"We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America. Now is our opportunity to make real progress," Biden said.
Biden called on lawmakers to swiftly pass legislation to enact police reform referring to a bill in Floyd’s name that has already passed in the House.
"My fellow Americans, we have to come together. To rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve. To root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system," Biden said.
Biden praised the Senate for recently passing the COVID—19 Hate Crimes Act, which protects Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have been disproportionately impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as well as hate crimes since the outbreak of the virus.
He also spoke to transgender Americans, saying, "I want you to know that your president has your back."
Push for legislation on guns and immigration
Biden spoke in emotional terms about gun violence and appealed to Republicans who have expressed support for providing a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
"The country supports it," Biden said repeatedly. "Congress should act."
Biden called gun violence in America an "epidemic." He said he had put the flag at the White House at half staff several times in the wake of multiple mass shootings that have occurred over the past few weeks.
"More than two weeks ago in the Rose Garden, surrounded by some of the bravest people I know – the survivors and families who lost loved ones to gun violence – I laid out several steps the Department of Justice is taking to end this epidemic," Biden said.
Biden called for a ban on "ghost guns," homemade guns built from kits purchased online.
"The parts have no serial numbers, so when they show up at a crime scene, they can't be traced. The buyers of ghost gun kits aren't required to pass a background check," Biden said.
Biden asked for bipartisan support to close various gun ownership loopholes and require background checks to purchase them.
"They will tell you that there are too many people today who are able to buy a gun, but who shouldn’t be able to. These kinds of reasonable reforms have the overwhelming support of the American people – including many gun owners," Biden said.
Biden also called for modernizing the nation’s immigration system, urging lawmakers to "end our exhausting war over immigration."
"On day one of my presidency, I kept my commitment and I sent a comprehensive immigration bill to Congress," Biden said. "If you believe we need a secure border – pass it. If you believe in a pathway to citizenship – pass it. If you actually want to solve the problem – I have sent you a bill, now pass it," Biden said.
Biden also called on added protections for "Dreamers" protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for children of parents who were not born in the United States.
The issues were too important to the Democratic base to leave out. But they face stiff opposition among the GOP in the Senate, where 10 Republicans would have to join with Democrats to overcome a filibuster.
Biden: ‘Democracy still works’
Biden said that while the nation’s democracy survived the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol meant to block the certification of his election, leaders in Washington must do more to boost the resilience of the nation’s system of government.
Biden argued that the nation’s adversaries "look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy."
"We have to prove them wrong," he said. "We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and can deliver for the people."
It was a familiar refrain for Biden, who has sounded an alarm about the nation’s divisions for years, but the urgency spiked after Jan 6.
While Biden reached out for bipartisanship, Republicans in Congress have largely panned his proposals as big government spending and vowed to oppose them.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina delivered Republicans’ rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s address Wednesday night, taking aim at COVID-19 restrictions while praising the GOP and Donald Trump’s previous efforts to restore the U.S. economy.
Scott lauded Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination efforts.
"Thanks to Operation Warp Speed and the Trump Administration, our country is flooded with safe and effective vaccines. Thanks to our bipartisan work last year, job openings are rebounding," he said.
He also gave credit to the GOP for the country’s economy before the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Just before COVID, we had the most inclusive economy in my lifetime," he added. "The lowest unemployment ever recorded for African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans. The lowest for women in nearly 70 years. Wages were growing faster for the bottom 25% than the top 25%."
"That happened because Republicans focused on expanding opportunity for all Americans," he said.
Scott blasted Democrats for not working with Republicans to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.
"They won’t even build bridges to build bridges," he said. "Less than 6% of the president’s plan goes to roads and bridges.
Ahead of Biden’s speech on Tuesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Biden's administration the "bait and switch" presidency for talking up bipartisanship but then leaving Republicans behind to negotiate legislation only with Democrats.
"President Biden ran as a moderate but I’m hard pressed to think of anything at all that he’s done so far that would indicate some degree of moderation," McConnell said Tuesday.
Republican leaders have also said they are unwilling to undo the 2017 tax law, their signature achievement of the Trump presidency, to pay for what they view as big spending by Democrats.
No Republicans voted for Biden's coronavirus rescue plan, which was signed into law last month. Last week, Republican senators proposed an alternative infrastructure plan focused on more traditional highway and bridge investments that would be one-fourth the cost, paid for by tolls and other user fees.
This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.