Democrats Unveil $3.5 Trillion Economic Plan : The NPR Politics Podcast In his April address to Congress, President Joe Biden said he hoped to prove that democracy and the federal government were still capable of delivering for the American people. This week, Senate Democrats unveiled Biden's chief effort to meet that promise: a $3.5 trillion dollar plan that would — among other things — dramatically expand access to child and health care, as well as overhaul the energy sector to curb climate change. The proposal faces a difficult road to passage and could see considerable revisions.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

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Biggest Bill Of Your Lifetime? Democrats Unveil $3.5 Trillion Economic Plan

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KIRBY: Hi, I'm Kirby (ph), and I've just set up camp outside of Shepherdstown, W.V., while I bike the 330 miles from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Washington, D.C. This podcast was recorded at...


1:21 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, July 15.

KIRBY: Now, like life itself and the trail conditions, things may have changed...

KIRBY: ...By the time you hear this. All right. Here's the show.


TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I have cousins who did that ride. It's amazing.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I support the ride. I question the timing of doing it in late July.

KEITH: True.

DAVIS: Like spring or fall might be a more pleasant weather, temperature wise, to do that kind of exercise.

KEITH: Seriously.

KHALID: Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: So President Biden is trying to push his economic agenda through Congress in two parts. One is a bipartisan infrastructure plan that we have talked a lot about on this show, frankly, you all are probably tired of hearing about it...

DAVIS: (Laughter).

KHALID: But, Sue, there is another part. Just begin by describing, what is this other part of his agenda?

DAVIS: You know, this budget and spending plan, if enacted, would be the largest expansion of the federal government in our lifetimes and maybe for the rest of our lives. It would be truly historic legislation, and Democrats would be the first people to tell you this. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was on the floor of the Senate this morning speaking exactly about this.


CHUCK SCHUMER: It will allow us to pass the most significant legislation, to expand support for American families since the era of the New Deal and the Great Society. If not quite Rooseveltian scope, it is certainly near Rooseveltian.

DAVIS: Budget chairman Bernie Sanders has talked about this a lot, too. I mean, for months he's been saying what they intend to do with this legislation is remake the way the country views its relationship to the federal government, and redirect wealth from the wealthiest and from corporations, more towards programs and direct cash assistance to help the poor and working class.

KEITH: And this is $3.5 trillion, not a small amount of money. It is actually a...

KHALID: Huge sum of money, right?


KHALID: I mean, I feel like that we haven't seen such a large sum of money ever, frankly, at least in my lifetime.

DAVIS: I think we've all become sort of dulled to these sums of money, especially in the era of the pandemic where Congress has just been passing trillions and trillions and trillions to keep the country afloat, that we've been desensitized to the idea that 3 1/2 trillion...

KHALID: But we should pause and point out 3.5...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KHALID: ...Trillion is an unprecedented amount of money.

DAVIS: It's an almost unfathomable amount of money politically if we had been talking about this a couple of years ago. I could never even have believed that we could be having the Democratic Party, you know, have a reasonable chance of advancing something of this scope.

KEITH: And just to go through some of the things that it does, would do - and at this point, it is still a framework. It is bullet points, sometimes one-word bullet points, but a lot of them. But it would include changes to Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing aids. That would be a huge change for older Americans. It would include universal pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds. It would include two years of community college. It would include a lot of changes to the energy economy as relates to climate change. It is a very big, massive thing with a long list of long-time Democratic priorities.

DAVIS: And they also want to pay for it by raising taxes, right? They've said that they intend to roll back some portion of the Trump tax cuts on corporations, on the wealthiest of Americans, although the Biden plan has also made clear that they will not touch tax rates for families that make less than $400,000 a year, which is, frankly, the vast majority of American households. And they also pledged that they won't touch taxes for family farms and small businesses.

KHALID: So I feel like the next step in understanding just what is the hypothetical future of this legislation depends on whether or not all Democrats in the Senate are on board. And I feel like we've talked about this a lot. But, you know, the Democratic range in the Senate can go from someone like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Is everyone and everyone in between happy with the product at this point?

DAVIS: Well, Bernie Sanders has endorsed it. He is the budget chairman. And he was 1 of the 11 Democrats on the committee that stood side by side with Chuck Schumer this week and put their support behind it. So progressives, you know, honestly, not always ever going to be fully happy. A lot of progressives wanted something closer to 6 to 10 trillion. But if Bernie Sanders is on board with it, it's kind of hard for progressives to be too much against it.

And part of why that Medicare expansion is in this bill and Schumer has been very upfront about it was because that was a red line for Bernie Sanders. So they had to put that in to get him on board. Getting Bernie Sanders on board certainly helps get the progressive wing on board. Joe Manchin hasn't indicated whether he's on board, but he hasn't ruled it out. There's a lot of programs in this bill he likes, but he has said he is, like many moderate Democrats, worried about whether this kind of spending that also requires tax hikes could not be exactly what the economy needs right now.

But don't underestimate the pressure that moderate Democrats or all Democrats are going to be under to deliver here. This is the top priority for their president. They control Congress right now. And these are initiatives that the Democratic Party has been promising for years and years, if not decades and decades. And the political need to deliver something is going to be very great. And I think the pressure is going to be immense on Democrats from Sanders to Manchin to deliver.

KEITH: This is a remarkable effort in that you have a president of the United States and his party - his party has very tenuous control over Congress, and they are essentially saying we are going to do almost the entirety of the president's economic agenda in one bill.

DAVIS: I would say the last time something was this big of stakes legislation was probably the Affordable Care Act more than a decade ago, and Democrats were able to get that through. Why I think this is even harder now is this is bigger. It's more ambitious. And they have less of a margin to lose, right? They cannot lose a single Democrat in the Senate because we know Republicans aren't going to support this.

And in the House, Pelosi, back during the ACA, you know, she had a couple dozen votes to play with. Here, I can count on one hand the Democrats she can lose and still get this bill through the House. So the lack of room for error, considering the scope of what they're trying to do, is one of the trickiest political acts I think I will probably ever cover. And I don't know if they will succeed, but if they do, it will be a testament (laughter) to how - to the leadership of Joe Biden, Pelosi and Chuck Schumer if they can get this through Washington considering the narrow power - the narrow balance of power that they have.

KHALID: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about the politics of this legislation.

And we're back. So this big $3.5 trillion spending plan - I just want to keep saying that number because it is so large - it is not meant to win over Republicans. But I am curious, Sue, as to how they're reacting to it.

DAVIS: Well, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said as recently as today that it will generate, in his words, zero Republican support. And I think that's a pretty safe bet. I mean, look, Democrats are using a process from the get-go that is intended to not need Republican support. They're going to use special budget rules that will allow them to get around a potential filibuster threat. It will also tie their hands a bit on what exactly can go into this bill and how ambitious it can be.

But they knew from the beginning that the chances of getting Republicans on board for a bill that largely requires rolling back Donald Trump's tax cuts, one of his biggest domestic achievements, is not something that Republicans are going to go for. So they are not wasting time trying to find Republican support for a bill that they know they're not going to get. And I think Republicans are very quickly and clearly lining up to vote against it.

KEITH: And Republicans knew that they weren't going to like this. Like, even the ones that were involved in the bipartisan talks at the White House knew that there was something moving along in tandem that was not designed to get their votes, that was designed to be passed with Democratic votes alone. And in some ways, I think those Republicans were betting on the idea that Democrats may not be able to fully come together.

KHALID: So that - I actually want to ask you about that. I mean, there - we talked about this at the outset, that there's two big pieces of this economic agenda that the White House is trying to get through, that Democrats are trying to get through, right? And one of them is this bipartisan infrastructure bill that we have been talking about. This other piece that we are talking about all throughout today's show is separate. But I'm curious if the big $3.5 trillion plan at all imperils the bipartisan infrastructure deal. Like, are Republicans who were on board with it now just taking a moment and hesitating because they're not sure that they're OK with these two things being tied together to move forward?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, some are. You've already seen Republicans who have come out in support of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill - and that's sort of the more traditional roads and bridges bipartisan stuff that can get through Congress - say that they might walk away from their support from it because they see their support of the bipartisan bill as sort of the gateway drug to Democrats being able to enact this other big Democratic priority. That - it's going to be tricky, right? I think that Republicans politically, even if they like what's in the infrastructure bill, politically, they're sensitive to this idea that they would be giving the president a big bipartisan win that would then open the door for an even bigger political win, as Democrats see it, to expand the federal government.

Also, here's the tricky part for Republicans in this reconciliation bill. Like, they don't like the toplines. It's familiar talking points - socialism, big government. They don't like those things. But a lot of policies in this bill are really popular. I mean, you want to expand Medicaid to make it easier for seniors to get their hearing aids and their glasses and their dental work done? That's a pretty popular idea. So I don't know how they sort of attack the bill, but yet a lot of them probably would be supportive of some of the actual policies if enacted. And certainly, a lot of traditional Republican constituencies - older voters, older white voters - you know, these are bills that are going to help their lives if they're enacted. And that's a tricky line to walk, too, right? How do you go against this agenda, even if the policies are going to help people that are your voters and your voters might actually really like them?

KHALID: Of course, one of the questions is whether or not people always vote with their economic interests in mind, right? I feel like people, all the time, vote against their own economic interests. And so...


KHALID: I guess it'll be interesting to see, ahead of '22, if this legislation actually gets through as to whether or not it actually pays off for one party or the other. But that leads me to a question about the timeline of this legislation. You know, Sue, it feels like we have been talking for weeks, months about negotiations. Are we still just in a negotiation phase? I mean, has anything moved forward? What are the next steps?

DAVIS: Well, Asma, I hate to break it to you, but I think we're going to be talking about these negotiations probably throughout the end of 2021. But Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has set up at least an important test vote for next week. And he's trying to move the ball forward in the Senate. He's set up a test vote for next Wednesday to try to get the Senate to move forward on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. He has also said at the same time, he wants at least internal agreement among Democrats, that all 50 of them are on board for the budget resolution, to advance that through the Senate. So we're going to have a sense next week of how this is going to go. Is it going to be more confrontation or is the Senate going to be able to advance this stuff on this rather tight timeline? Schumer wants the Senate to act or at least advance the ball on both of them before they adjourn for the August recess.

KEITH: And just an indication that this is not a done deal on the Democratic side, President Biden was up at the Capitol yesterday for the Senate Democratic lunch. Now, of course, I'm sure he loves having lunch with his old colleagues from the Senate, but the reality is that he was there to lobby for this legislation and to sort of be there trying to rally Democrats around it, including progressives who wish it was more and moderate and more conservative Democrats who were maybe a little scared by the topline number. So, you know, if the votes were there, as the press secretary said yesterday, they'd vote on it, and it would be done. But it's not done.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. As Sue suggested, this will certainly not be the last time we talk about this. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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