Biden allies warn: Pass his agenda or lose women voters

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One of the most powerful Democratic-allied groups in D.C. is warning party members that they risk leaving women voters behind if they don’t back President Joe Biden’s social spending package.

The Center for American Progress is pressing Democratic lawmakers to keep the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package as close to its original blueprint as possible, arguing that it’s vital for helping women workers hit hard by the pandemic. Simply passing an infrastructure bill, the group warns, would create a massive divergence in the economic recovery along gender lines.

“[I]f funding infrastructure is the only action taken by Congress and the rest of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda remains unpassed, there will be little hope for a balanced, sustainable, and equitable economic recovery,” reads the CAP memo, first shared with POLITICO. “Specifically, as vital as the jobs created by the bipartisan infrastructure bill would be, they would almost all be created in occupations that overwhelmingly employ men, without support for occupations primarily held by women.”

The push from CAP comes as Biden is ramping up promotion of his so-called Build Back Better agenda, which is expected to include funding for workers in elder and child care — fields that are dominated by women. Democrats are planning to move the proposal through the budget reconciliation process, allowing them to pass it along party lines with a simple majority. The White House’s goal is to pass it in tandem with Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support this week but awaits action in the House.

CAP’s focus on the benefits they say the proposal would provide women is a not-so-subtle warning shot to the party: The voting bloc they depend on won’t necessarily be there in the midterms unless they rally around the totality of Biden’s sweeping economic agenda. It also echoes the case a number of progressive groups and some lawmakers have made as they push for the bill.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) said she along with other members of the Congressional Black Caucus want to ensure the final reconciliation package is “representative of all of our minority groups [and] representative of women.” During an Oval Office meeting with Biden in April, Lawrence said, the CBC made it clear to the president that his economic agenda couldn’t be like the New Deal, which they said left behind workers of color and women.

Republicans have slammed Biden’s plan, arguing it relies on massive taxation, will inject the federal government into women’s lives and disadvantage stay-at-home mothers. The taxes Biden is pursuing in his plan target corporations and those making more than $400,000.

But for women’s groups, the proposal is a generational-opportunity to achieve long-sought domestic policy wins. Over the August recess, groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Service Employees International Union will mobilize caregivers and women at town halls. They’ll also take members of Congress on “walk-a-days” that show lawmakers what a typical day of work is like for caregivers.

“This is the most popular aspect of the American jobs plan,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU. “Women voters understand because they are the primary caregivers in the home — 3 million of them left the paid workforce in order to care for either children or elders in multi-generational families. And I think women understand viscerally that this is work that's never been valued.”

Ai-jen Poo, the National Domestic Workers Alliance's executive director, said Biden’s proposal would effectively raise wages and improve job standards for in-home and community-based workers — a field that is “90 percent women, and majority women of color, who earn on average about $17,000 a year.”

“There's high rates of turnover, and these are some of the fastest growing professions in our labor force today, because we have such a huge and growing older population,” Poo added.

For progressives groups across the spectrum, the forthcoming reconciliation bill is viewed as the best, and perhaps last, opportunity to advance their legislative priorities. CAP’s report doesn’t address the potential to tackle items like climate change or immigration reform in the package. Instead, it homes in on the economic impacts that would come with passage of a bill that bolsters child care services, expands parental leave and widens educational opportunities.

Women make up more than 90 percent of child care workers, home health aides, and preschool and kindergarten teachers, according to data circulated by CAP. In contrast, women make up less than 5 percent of construction laborers and equipment operators and less than 10 percent of highway maintenance workers and construction and building inspectors.

“Leaving women behind again would hold back families and the economy for yet another generation,” the CAP report said.

On Wednesday, Biden turned to the reconciliation plan after having taken a victory lap for the Senate’s passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill the day before. He touched briefly on issues related to women in the workforce, noting that his proposal “will spur more people to work by helping ease the burdens of childcare and senior care that parents, especially mothers, bear, keeping them out of the job market.”

“There are going to be some ups and downs,” Biden said, “but I am committed to making sure our historic economic recovery reaches everyone.”

But the majority of the president’s speech, delivered from the White House, was on his proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs it purchases. Getting that provision through — alongside proposals by Sen. Bernie Sanders to expand Medicare coverage to include vision, dental and hearing aids — will be a difficult task for Democrats.

Democratic strategists and lawmakers nonetheless remain bullish on the party’s ability to get at least some part of Medicare drug price reform into the package.

Like allied groups, the White House has touted the parts of the proposal that would boost female workers in care services in radio and TV interviews. Last month, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo warned about the precipitous drop of women in the workforce due to the pandemic, telling Fortune that businesses and lawmakers are “underestimating the size and magnitude of the problem.”

“A core piece of our agenda is making sure that those workers that provide that care work are paid well. And that is disproportionately women workers, disproportionately women workers of color,” said Heather Boushey, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. “I do think that this is compelling to families because these are the kitchen table issues that people talk about all the time.”

For women’s groups, the boost to the women workforce is urgent, and as Democrats prepare consideration of Biden’s proposals, advocates are warning that there could be political consequences if lawmakers don’t back the package.

“Any political leader who votes against or pushes out the care infrastructure components from this package, regardless of political party, does so at their peril,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising, an advocacy group that pushes affordable childcare and paid family leave. “Make no mistake, women and moms across the country are paying attention, are speaking out at unprecedented levels and are going to be carrying that information about what happens to the voting booth.”

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