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Courtney makes case for social spending package

Joe Courtney is championing legislation that, if passed, will be a cornerstone of Joe Biden’s presidency.

The legislation, known as the Build Back Better Act, would expand health care programs and child care support, better fund affordable housing, counter climate change and improve job training efforts, among other stated goals.

The bipartisan infrastructure package hasn’t yet been voted on by the House but was passed in the Senate. The House set a rule in July to vote on an infrastructure bill on or before Sept. 27. Courtney said the Build Back Better Act’s schedule was intentional and planned with the infrastructure bill in mind.

Setting the Sept. 27 deadline “was done with the thought that we’d be moving on a parallel path to do Build Back Better at or about the same time.”

Courtney said getting both bills passed is a “tall order.”

“This is separate from the annual budget process,” he said of the $3.5-trillion social spending plan. “It’s kind of a free-standing, five- to eight-year package, depending on the different components, to follow up on the president’s campaign promise that we were not just going to pass a COVID relief bill, but that we would fix a lot of the problems exposed during COVID that were of a more systemic nature.”

Courtney said by phone on Friday that all of the 13 committees weighing in on the bill have completed their work for the House and Senate budget committees to review.

“The plan is that we would take it up right about the same time as the infrastructure bill, and it would go straight to the president’s desk,” he said.

House Republicans have indicated they won’t go along with the infrastructure bill if it means Democrats will pass the partisan social spending bill as well. Democrats are able to pass the Build Back Better Act through Senate rules allowing the majority party to bypass a filibuster and secure passage with a simple majority vote.

Courtney is most familiar with his Education and Labor Committee’s section of the bill — which he notes currently carries the largest allocation of funds.

He extolled funding for apprenticeship programs.

“The U.S. has always underfunded apprenticeships compared to other developed countries, and putting 5 billion new dollars over five years into the national Apprenticeship Act is roughly about 2 million new slots for apprenticeships,” he said. “They’re not all in manufacturing and construction, which has historically been the dominant sector.”

He praised a community college program that he says will tighten the connection between local job markets and the curriculum at community colleges.

“We’re seeing some of that already, Three Rivers started up a sheet metal program a few years back that’s been a huge success,” he said.

Legislation introduced by Courtney also is tied up in the package. The Recognizing Military Service in Public Service Loan Forgiveness Act would allow American service members to count the full length of their service toward their student loan forgiveness.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce came out in support of boosting day care because “They found out they couldn’t get people back to work,” Courtney said. “It took COVID to hit them over the head with a two-by-four.”

In Connecticut, at the moment families making up to 100% of the state median income, which is about $120,000 a year for a family of four, are eligible for a subsidy though they have to contribute 10% of it toward day care costs and fees.

“This bill cuts that down to 7% and expands the eligibility to over 200% of state median income,” Courtney said. “So families up to $240,000 could qualify for a subsidy. The higher your income, the higher that 7% counts.”

The bill provides for about $450 billion to spend on lowering child care costs and allowing universal pre-K for 3- to 4-year-olds.

The bill also would bring two years of tuition-free community college.

Courtney pushed back on people who’ve called his office and labeled the bill “soft infrastructure.”

“We still have a high unemployment rate, and we also still have a high number of job openings, so clearly there’s a disconnect between openings and the unemployed, and I think the skills gap is the disconnect,” he said. “You can call that soft infrastructure, but to me you can’t build infrastructure unless you build that skill set.”

Courtney said he’s been glad to work on landmark legislation he believes in again after four years of President Donald Trump. He also criticized sequestration under President Barack Obama, meaning automatic spending cuts to certain areas of the budget, calling it “an iron chain that just sort of made it impossible to address priorities like this.”

“There’s no question that Build Back Better was the heart of the Biden campaign’s message,” he said.

s.spinella@theday.com 

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