WASHINGTON – With an eye on 2024, President Joe Biden will showcase his election-year budget plan this week in must-win Pennsylvania rather than the usual White House setting.
Biden's trip to Philadelphia on Thursday is a sign that the president's budget proposal is part of a bigger political push to connect with voters. He's telling them that taxes on the wealthy can reduce federal deficits and spare cuts to popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
The White House budget plan will be a “what if” document, aimed at telling voters what the federal government could do if Democrats were solidly in control of the White House and Congress. Right now, the Republican majority in the House opposes most of Biden's ideas.
The president hinted in a Monday speech that tax increases on the wealthy will be at the core of his budget plan, declaring that one provision will targets billionaires.
Addressing a firefighters group as representatives of everyday, working Americans, he said, “Much of what we’re doing is about your right to be treated fairly, with dignity and with respect."
“Part of that is making a tax system that's fair. We can make all these improvements and still cut the deficit if we start making people pay a fair share," he said in his remarks to the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Democrats and Republicans are jockeying now to show the public which party is the most fiscally responsible. It's a key test as the White House and Congress will need to agree to raise the government's borrowing authority this summer, or else the U.S. could default and send the economy into a severe recession.
Biden laid the groundwork for his upcoming budget in his State of the Union address last month and in other recent speeches. He's pledged to trim deficits by a combined $2 trillion over 10 years, strengthen Social Security and Medicare and limit tax increases to people earning more than $400,000.
His plan is in some ways far more ambitious than what he proposed in 2021, when his budget would have reduced the debt by $1 trillion over 10 years relative to projections.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has called for putting the country on a path to a balanced budget, while leaving Social Security and Medicare untouched. But McCarthy has kept a poker face on how the GOP could do that. House Republicans have struggled to coalesce behind a budget proposal of their own, and are unlikely to release a blueprint unless and until they have 218 votes for a majority to approve it.
The hard-right Freedom Caucus, setting down its own marker, is due to present its priorities that would roll spending back to fiscal 2022 levels and put the federal budget on a path toward balance. It pushed for those policies as part of the drawn-out fight to make McCarthy House speaker, but their plan would require painful cuts that are too severe for other Republicans.
In brief remarks last week, McCarthy said it could be two months before the House Republicans have a budget proposal, telling The Associated Press: “We got pushed behind because of the president."
So instead, congressional Republicans this week will highlight the tax increases that Biden will outline in his budget proposal, betting that their arguments will sway voters at a time when inflation continues to hit consumers' pockets. That's according to GOP aides who insisted on anonymity to discuss their strategy.
Especially helpful to Republicans, they say, was Biden saying outright of his plans last week that “I’m gonna raise some taxes.”
“There's nothing about them that has any concern about deficits or debt,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said on Monday. “It's about raising taxes and growing government. That's probably what the budget will do.”
Pennsylvania makes for a solid test of the two competing ideological visions for the country. Biden won the state by roughly a percentage point in 2020, a decidedly narrow victory. His appearance Thursday will be his 23rd trip since becoming president.
In the 2022 Pennsylvania Senate race, Democrat John Fetterman won by roughly five points despite voters’ concerns about the U.S. economy tied to high inflation.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Pennsylvania is very “close to Biden’s heart” and that the president, who was born in Scranton, sees it as a “second home” after Delaware, where he served as a senator.
When Biden travels to Pennsylvania and elsewhere, Jean-Pierre said, “It’s an opportunity for the president to talk directly to the American people.”
Besides taxes, GOP lawmakers are taking aim at the White House pledge to further reduce the deficit, pointing at the massive spending measures passed by Democrats during the first two years of Biden’s presidency. In particular, GOP senators plan to make the case that with the government's income so high already, the Democrats should be cutting or reducing programs rather than raising taxes to pay for even more spending, according to one of the Republican aides.
Jim Carter, a director at the conservative America First Policy Institute, said that Congress typically ignores presidential budgets and he expects Biden's plan to be more of a “liberal messaging document.”
“The federal government does not have a revenue problem,” Carter said. “It has a spending problem, and Joe Biden’s budget will do nothing to curb it.”
House Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, put out a list of more than $750 billion in possible spending cuts last month. Atop the list was repealing Biden's executive order providing some student debt forgiveness, which would restore roughly $400 billion to federal coffers.
Arrington also included rescinding money tied to what he called a “woke” agenda, as the GOP's cultural messaging has merged with the economic. He would eliminate $60 billion from the EPA that would go for environmental justice programs and get back $3.6 million meant to extend the Michelle Obama Trail in Georgia.
Phillip Swagel, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, issued guidance on Monday saying that projected deficits would need to be cut by $5 trillion during the next decade to match the 50-year historical average.
“Returning primary deficits to their historical average is not a recommendation by CBO,” Swagel wrote as a caveat.
As Swagel outlined it, the political tradeoffs are clear. Some $670 billion to $1.2 trillion could be raised by removing limits on the payroll taxes that fund Social Security. But that would be a tax increase. The GOP opposes tax hikes, and the increase would also violate Democrat Biden's promise to only raise taxes on those earning more than $400,000.
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.