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Biden seeks huge funding increases for education, health care, environmental protection

WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden on Friday asked Congress to authorize a massive $1.5 trillion federal spending plan in 2022, seeking to invest heavily in government agencies to boost education, expand public housing, combat the coronavirus and confront climate change. 

The request marks Biden's first-ever proposal for discretionary spending, a precursor to a fuller, annual budget slated later in the spring that will also address programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The president's early blueprint calls for a nearly 16% increase in funding across nondefense domestic programs, reflecting the White House's guiding belief that bigger government -- and spending -- can close the country's persistent economic gaps.

Many of the agencies Biden seeks to fund at higher levels in 2022 are programs that now-former President Donald Trump had unsuccessfully sought to slash while in the White House. In a further break with Trump, Biden's plan also calls for keeping military spending relatively flat in the upcoming fiscal year. The approach sparked early opposition from congressional Republicans, who faulted the Biden administration for shortchanging the Pentagon.

Under the proposal, the Department of Education would see a roughly 41% increase over its current allocation, reaching $102 billion next fiscal year, most of the increased funds targeted to the Title I program, which funds high-poverty schools. The proposal would double federal spending on the Title I program and represent the largest increase since it was created more than 55 years ago. The plan also proposes a roughly 23% boost to the Department of Health and Human Services, including more than $8.7 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which the administration says is the highest funding level for the public-health agency in two decades. It would create a new federal agency under the National Institutes of Health, called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, focused initially on innovative research into cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease.

The budget envisions nearly $69 billion in federal money toward addressing public housing, a 15% increase from the amounts enacted in 2021, to help low-income families obtain access to affordable living accommodations. And the Biden administration hopes to sets aside a total of $14 billion in new sums across government to protect the environment, including new efforts to reduce carbon emissions and research clean-energy technology.

"Together, America has a chance not simply to go back to the way things were before the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn struck, but to begin building a better, stronger, more secure, more inclusive America," the White House's acting budget chief, Shalanda Young, said in a letter accompanying the blueprint Friday.

In releasing the spending document, the White House set off what is an annual, often bitterly partisan fight in Washington, as lawmakers race to fund the government before the current spending agreement expires at the end of September. The vast increases Biden seek comes in addition to the $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package he signed into law last month, and the roughly $2 trillion plan to upgrade the nation's roads, bridges and other infrastructure the White House asked Congress to adopt last week.

But setting federal spending at such high levels may prove difficult for Democrats, who maintain only narrow congressional majorities in the House and Senate. They likely must rely on Republicans, who maintain filibuster power in the Senate, and some GOP lawmakers already have shown a renewed interest in tightening the federal purse strings -- and addressing the budget deficit -- after largely ignoring the issue during Trump's presidency.

On Friday, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the chamber's Appropriations Committee, faulted the Biden administration for coupling a massive increase in domestic spending with only a minor increase for the U.S. military. "That signals weakness to China and Russia, who are aggressively investing in their militaries," Shelby said in a statement, later adding: "We've just spent several trillion dollars domestically, and the administration is determined to spend several trillion more. Shortchanging America's defense in the process is unacceptable and dangerous."

Anticipating the fight ahead, a senior administration official on Friday acknowledged they are only at "the beginning of a long appropriations process" on Capitol Hill. But the aide, who briefed reporters on the budget in advance of its release on condition of anonymity, said the document for now serves as a "great marker" of the White House's priorities -- and its belief that the country in recent years has underinvested in domestic agencies and programs.

For the past decade, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have been beholden to spending caps as a result of the budget-balancing law Congress adopted in 2011. That has taken its greatest toll on domestic agencies, limiting federal spending across government even as defense funding continued to rise. But those caps expire entering the 2022 fiscal year, allowing broad latitude for Biden to seek major increases in areas including education, commerce, energy and health.

"With austerity caps and an era of chronic disinvestment finally behind us, Congress can turn this proposal into a budget that will help generate a stronger, fairer economy, while truly meeting the needs of our communities," Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., chairman of the House Budget Committee, said in a statement.

Under Biden's blueprint, the country would spend $769 billion on nondefense programs. The education dollars include new boosts to Pell Grants, which offer support to low-income college students, though the $400 increase the president has proposed for students each year is smaller than the amount he endorsed on the campaign trail. The budget proposal would also expand government-supported child care programs and add money to hire more counselors and mental health professionals at schools.

Other new funding targets the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would see a major expansion to voucher programs that might help more than 200,000 families obtain assistance, the administration estimates.

And the budget aims to plus-up climate-change focused programs, including the Environmental Protection Agency. Aiming to reverse massive cuts at the EPA over the past decade, the Biden administration has requested a roughly 21 percent increase in its funding, which would support a new, $936 million "environmental justice initiative" that promises to "hold polluters accountable."

Some of the budget proposals seek to enact initiatives under the $1.9 trillion stimulus, the American Rescue Plan, that Biden signed into law last month. That includes new money to help homeless families and veterans, and new federal funding on public-health programs targeting racial and ethnic minorities. The budget also proposes roughly $100 million to aid states so that they can further improve their unemployment benefits systems in the wake of crushing demand earlier in the pandemic.

Other proposed increases track long-held Democratic policy priorities. There's more money proposed for police reform and changes to the criminal justice system, for example, and other new investments - totaling $2.1 billion - to try to combat gun violence. And the Biden administration has recommended a significant increase in funding to fight the opioid epidemic, hoping to devote $10.7 billion to the cause next fiscal year.

Biden says he's open to compromise with Republicans on $2 trillion infrastructure plan. However, Republicans sharply blasted the early budget proposal on Friday. Rep. Jason Smith, the top GOP lawmaker on the House Budget Committee, criticized the Biden administration for producing what amounted to a "back-of-the-envelope booking exercise" weeks late. For its part, the White House faced early obstacles in preparing its spending request because of delays created by the outgoing Trump administration as it sought to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election. Adding to the trouble, Biden's initial pick to lead his top budget office, Neera Tanden, ultimately had to withdraw from consideration amid political blowback to her tweets.

Biden's budget marks a dramatic reversal in approach from Trump, under whom federal spending largely stayed flat until 2020 forced Congress to authorize sweeping new federal aid to combat the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The gap between government spending and revenue eclipsed $3.1 trillion in 2020 after running above $1 trillion for several years.

To finance these deficits, the Treasury Department issues debt to borrow money. Federal Reserve officials and others encouraged the White House to borrow money last year to help the recovery and because interest rates remained low, but the government must still pay interest on large borrowing levels. Last year, total government debt eclipsed the entire size of the American economy -- and over the life of Trump's presidency it grew from around $14 trillion to more than $21 trillion over four years.

During his less than three months in office, Biden has not shown any inclination to pivot toward austerity. He has already signed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill into law, proposed more than $2 trillion in infrastructure spending, and then added new domestic spending as part of his budget plan on Friday.

Biden's new budget plan does not include new ideas for how to change the tax code. Earlier in the week, the Treasury Department unveiled a $2.5 trillion plan to raise corporate taxes as a way to finance infrastructure changes, but Biden has not specified yet whether he will seek further changes to the tax code to offset other areas of new spending.

 

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