President Joe Biden speaks about gun violence prevention in the Rose Garden at the White House, Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Biden budget seeks more for schools, health care and housing

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden released a $1.5 trillion wish list for his first federal budget, asking for substantial gains for Democratic priorities including education, health care, housing and environmental protection.

The request by the White House budget office Friday for an 8.4% increase in agency operating budgets spells out Biden’s top priorities as Congress weighs its spending plans for next year. It’s the first financial outline of the Democrats’ broader ambitions since the expiration of a 2011 law that capped congressional spending.

“I’m hoping it’ll have some bipartisan support across the board,” Biden said before an Oval Office meeting with his economics team, though prominent Senate Republicans immediately complained the plan would shortchange the military and national security in boosting domestic programs.

Bipartisanship in 2011 also restricted Democrats’ ambitions, a problem they’re now trying to address. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was “inheriting a legacy of chronic underinvestment” because of the caps.

“The president is focused on reversing this trend and reinvesting in the foundations of our strength,” she told reporters at a briefing.

At stake is “discretionary spending,” roughly one-third of the huge federal budget that is passed by Congress each year, funding the military, domestic Cabinet department operations, foreign policy and homeland security. The rest of the budget involves so-called mandatory programs with locked-in spending, chiefly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

The Biden request provides a significantly smaller 1.6% increase for the $700 billion-plus Pentagon budget than for domestic accounts. Homeland security accounts would basically be frozen, reflecting opposition among Democratic progressives to immigration security forces.

Senate Republicans were quick to criticize the modest proposed increase for defence, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, Florida’s Marco Rubio, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Alabama’s Richard Shelby releasing a joint statement.

“Talk is cheap, but defending our country is not,” they said. “We can’t afford to fail in our constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defence. To keep America strong, we must balance domestic and defence spending priorities.”

The appropriations process was one of the few consistent success stories of former President Donald Trump’s tumultuous four-year tenure in office, but this year’s budget cycle is not governed by the formal spending caps of a broader outline. The lapse of those caps opens the door to more domestic spending favoured by Biden and Democrats but invites a battle with Republicans over military accounts.

The Biden administration believes the caps, imposed by a long-abandoned 2011 budget deal, caused a decade of severe underinvestment in public services that the president is now trying to turn around with large increases that would mostly bypass national security programs.

The administration says the request would bring spending in line with historical averages. It seeks $769 billion in non-defence discretionary funding, about equal to the 30-year average relative to the overall U.S. economy.

Biden wants to increase the Education Department’s budget by a massive 40.8% to $102.8 billion, which includes an additional $20 billion in grants for high-poverty schools.

The Department of Health and Human Services would get a 23.1% boost to $133.7 billion. There would be additional funds to combat opioid addiction and for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose mission took on new urgency during the coronavirus pandemic. The administration is also asking for $6.5 billion to establish a biomedical research agency to address cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

Biden is seeking a $14 billion increase across government agencies to address climate change. It’s part of a whole-of-government approach to the climate crisis that includes billions to boost environmental justice for communities near refineries, power plants and other hazardous sites.

Housing and Urban Development would get a 15.1% increase to $68.7 billion, primarily to provide housing vouchers for an additional 200,000 families. The administration also seeks more money for civil rights enforcement and addressing gun violence as a public health epidemic.

Passing the president’s plan as written through Congress is typically a long shot. Recent history and guaranteed conflicts with Republicans are likely to force lawmakers to put discretionary accounts on autopilot for months after the Sept. 30 expiration of the budget year.

The plan also details how the Biden administration will try to deal with the influx of arrivals at the U.S. southern border. It includes $861 million to invest in Central America to address the forces driving people to migrate to the United States. An additional $345 million would go to immigration services to resolve delays in years-long naturalization and asylum cases. The budget for the Executive Office of Immigration Review would jump 21% to $891 million in order to hire 100 new immigration judges and support teams to reduce the existing backlogs.

The president seeks modest increases for national security. Defence — the largest department in the discretionary plan — would get a 1.6% increase to $715 billion. Homeland Security would edge up 0.2% to $52 billion.

But the administration views diplomacy as a way to engage with the wider world. It’s pursuing a 12% increase in funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, taking their spending to $63.5 billion.

Friday’s request does not include plans for tax revenues or mandatory federal spending. Nor does it include the planned spending in Biden’s infrastructure plan. A fuller budget proposal will be released later this spring.

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