Biden pleads for unity, warns of Chinese threat, in speech to Congress

US President Joe Biden (centre) addresses Congress with Vice-President Kamala Harris (left) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi behind him, on April 28, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - United States President Joe Biden proposed a sweeping new US$1.8 trillion (S$2.3 trillion) plan in a speech to a joint session to Congress on Wednesday (April 28), pleading with Republican lawmakers 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 Republicans 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.

Mr Biden appeared in the chamber of the US 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 US vice-president, Ms Kamala Harris, behind him.

Republicans largely sat silently during the speech while Democrats applauded.

Mr Biden, who took office in January, also made an impassioned plea to raise taxes on corporations and wealthy 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, removing his mask to speak to a group of about 200 hundred Democratic and Republican 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 Democratic and Republican lawmakers 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.

Republicans in Congress already have their eyes on making gains in the mid-term congressional elections in 2022, and are aligning a divided party around opposing Mr Biden.

Many question the wisdom of embracing spending policies that are more aggressive than most of Mr Biden's allies or rivals had expected.

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

The initial Republican response to his 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, on the other hand, wanted more.

US 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," he said. "At the very moment our adversaries were certain we would pull apart and fail, we came together - united."

US President Joe Biden appeared in the chamber of the US House of Representatives with a small, specially selected group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers arrayed before him. PHOTO: AFP

Mr Biden argued that his proposals for families and infrastructure, which together total about US$4 trillion, represent 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 revitalising our democracy. And winning the future for America."

But Republicans say most of the spending is aimed at satisfying Mr Biden's liberal base, and that the President's plans amount to socialism.

Mr Biden said the spending plans were needed to keep up with China, which he and his administration sees 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."

Lawmakers applaud as President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington on April 28, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Biden's plan includes US$1 trillion in spending on education and childcare over 10 years and US$800 billion in tax credits aimed at middle- and low-income families, according to a White House fact sheet.

It also includes US$200 billion for free, universal pre-school and US$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.

Mr Biden spoke a little more than three months after protesters loyal to then President Trump stormed the US Capitol, a deadly incident that shook America and led to security fencing that still remains outside the building.

Proposed tax overhaul

To pay for the plans, Mr Biden has proposed an overhaul of the US tax system. Wednesday's American Families Plan is funded by raising the top marginal tax rate for the wealthiest Americans to 39.6 per cent from its current 37 per cent.

It nearly doubles the tax on investment income - known as capital gains - for Americans who earn more than US$1 million. The proposed 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. Republican US Senator Tim Scott argued in his rebuttal to Mr Biden's speech that the proposals will hurt long-term economic growth.

"Our best future won't come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams," said Mr Scott, the sole black Senate Republican.

"It will come from you - the American people," he said. He also argued that Mr Biden's presidency is benefiting from an economic recovery for which Mr Trump, a Republican, set the stage.

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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".

The session is a far cry from the more than 1,000 officials, friends and guests who typically gather for such a presidential speech.

The nationally televised address, however, targets an audience far beyond the reduced-sized crowd on Capitol Hill.

About 48 million people watched Mr Biden's predecessor Mr Trump's first address to a joint session in 2017.

Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said ahead of the speech that Mr Biden had not followed through on his promises of seeking unity and has tried to placate liberals instead.

"Over a few short months, the Biden administration seems to have given up on selling actual unity in favour of catnip for their liberal base, covered with a hefty coat of false advertising," Mr McConnell said.

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