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Biden, Democrats Bet On Bigger Government With Stimulus Bill, Infrastructure Plan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For years now, mainstream Democrats have avoided labels like socialist or words like redistribution, but some are now embracing a new era of big government. Here's NPR's Kelsey Snell.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: In less than 100 days, President Biden and congressional Democrats have passed the second-largest stimulus bill in history and launched an infrastructure plan that would spend trillions to remake the economy over the next decade, all without Republicans. But Biden told reporters last month that this big spending has broad public support.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, I've not been able to unite the Congress, but I've been uniting the country based on the polling data.

SNELL: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has explicitly embraced the term big government. He says the crisis caused by the coronavirus made clear that people want help, and they want it to be more than just a one-time check from the federal government.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: I believe that America is ready for big, bold, comprehensive change.

SNELL: Democrats spent millions in the 2018 and 2020 campaigns telling voters they weren't socialist and carefully avoiding talk of big structural change. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says these bills are evidence that Democrats have become a party of liberal progressives.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Joe Biden may have won the nomination, but I think Bernie Sanders won the war over what the Democratic Party nationally is these days.

SNELL: Senator Patty Murray, a member of Democratic leadership, says Democrats are simply addressing long-standing problems that were exacerbated by the coronavirus with long-time policies like generous tax benefits for parents, expanded food and health care support and larger unemployment payments.

PATTY MURRAY: I think some of the bigger impacts are just people seeing some of the stress taken off their individual lives that has just kept them under for so long.

SNELL: But a lot has changed for Democrats in recent years. Traditionally, big spending like $1.9 trillion in COVID relief and the idea of $2 trillion for infrastructure would set off alarm bells about the deficit. That's what happened in 2009 when former President Obama passed a fraction of the spending Democrats are discussing now. Phil Schiliro, Obama's legislative director at the time, says both parties wanted to avoid being branded as big spenders.

PHIL SCHILIRO: And then the first thing the Republican majority did with Donald Trump was pass the $2 trillion tax cuts, and the deficit exploded again.

SNELL: So with deficits on the back burner, old Democratic ideas about big government had room to grow. And the Democratic Party, particularly in the Senate, has also changed.

SCHILIRO: In the beginning of 2009, there were 58 Democrats, but 14 of them, at least 14, came from Republican states.

SNELL: Now, Joe Manchin of West Virginia is one of the only Democrats representing a state President Trump won in 2020. And he's made clear he doesn't like partisan tactics, like using budget reconciliation or ending the filibuster to pass all of this spending with a simple majority of Democrats in the Senate. But there's still support for Biden's plans among other moderate Democrats. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos represents an Illinois district President Trump won twice. She says people there aren't complaining about spending or socialism or Senate tactics.

CHERI BUSTOS: They want us to figure out how we're going to get the job done. I don't hear anybody bring up to me reconciliation. I'm not getting asked about the filibuster. I am being asked to get the job done.

SNELL: The main risk for Democrats, Bustos says, is that voters need all of this spending to turn into jobs and stability going forward. Another risk is that the more progressive wing of the party is already warning that Biden's plans are too small. In an interview with NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, in New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said this of Biden's plan.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: It's disappointing. The size of it is disappointing. It's not enough.

SNELL: Ocasio-Cortez wants something closer to $10 trillion for infrastructure. Congress may balk at that, but many Democrats are betting that Americans won't.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "WEIRD CAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.