Biden pleads for unity as he pushes $2.4 trillion spending plan

He urges Republicans to work with him, noting need to meet competition from China

President Joe Biden proposed a new US$1.8 trillion (S$2.4 trillion) plan in a speech to a joint session to Congress on Wednesday, pleading with Republican lawmakers to work with him on divisive issues and to meet the competition posed by China.

WASHINGTON • President Joe Biden has proposed a sweeping US$1.8 trillion (S$2.4 trillion) spending plan in a speech to a joint session of Congress, pleading with Republicans to work with him on divisive issues and to meet the stiff competition posed by China.

Pushing a vision of more government investment funded by the wealthy, the Democratic President urged Republican lawmakers who have so far resolutely opposed him to help pass a wide array of contentious legislation from taxes to police reform to gun control and immigration.

Republicans largely sat silently during the speech on Wednesday while Democrats applauded as Mr Biden spoke.

Mr Biden, who took office in January, also made an impassioned plea to raise taxes on corporations and for rich Americans to help pay for his US$1.8 trillion "American Families Plan".

"It's time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1 per cent of Americans to pay their fair share - just pay their fair share," Mr Biden said.

He made his plea in the House of Representatives at an event scaled back this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, speaking to a group of about 200 hundred lawmakers, other officials and guests.

Mr 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 want him to push for more aggressive plans. He said he was willing to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to come to an agreement, and he is to meet top lawmakers from both parties at the White House on May 12 to try to find common ground.

Whether Mr Biden can truly bring Republicans across a deep partisan divide is far from clear, with Congress polarised and Democrats holding only narrow majorities. He had promised throughout the 2020 presidential campaign to work with Republicans, but his major legislative achievement, a US$1.9 trillion pandemic stimulus plan, passed without a Republican vote.

Furthermore, Republicans in Congress already have their eyes on making gains in the mid-term congressional elections next year, and are aligning a divided party around opposing Mr Biden.

The White House is hoping, however, that some Republicans will bend to popular will. Polls show most Americans support increased investment in schools, education and infrastructure, as well as taxing the rich more.

The initial Republican response to Mr Biden's speech was sceptical, and somewhat dismissive.

"This whole thing could have just been an e-mail," Representative Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, said in a tweet.

The Democratic left wing, however, wanted more.

Representative Jamaal Bowman, a liberal Democrat, said Mr Biden's proposal are important "but don't go as big as we'd truly need in order to solve the crisis of jobs, climate and care".

Speaking less than four months after demonstrators loyal to then-President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol in a bid to overturn the election results, Mr Biden said America was "on the move again".

"We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy - of pandemic and pain - and 'we the people' did not flinch... At the very moment our adversaries were certain we would pull apart and fail, we came together - united."

Mr Biden said the spending plans were needed to keep up with China, seen by him and his administration as a major strategic challenger. "China and other countries are closing in fast," he said, adding that he has 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."

The joint session was historic on multiple fronts: the unprecedented number of empty seats in the chamber, indicative of the nation's ongoing 14-month battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.

And with Vice-President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated at the dais, two women flanked a US president during his speech to Congress for the first time ever.

Mr Biden marked his 100th day in office with a trip to Georgia yesterday, visiting former president Jimmy Carter and pitching his plans to spend trillions of dollars to rebuild the US economy.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2021, with the headline 'Biden pleads for unity as he pushes $2.4 trillion spending plan'. Subscribe