Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Wednesday put down a political marker, telling HuffPost that a major child care initiative must be a part of the large economic package Democrats hope to pass this year.
Warren also endorsed the strategy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has said she won’t sign off on a smaller, bipartisan bill limited to funding roads, bridges and similar projects until she knows for sure that the larger package with other initiatives, including child care, is on track to become law.
Making quality, affordable child care available to all Americans is one of several goals that Democratic Party leaders have identified as a legislative priority and that President Joe Biden included in the two-part, wide-ranging infrastructure agenda he outlined earlier this year.
But it’s an open question how much of the Democratic agenda can pass and when, given political circumstances. Warren, in an interview, said that child care must stay in the mix.
“Child care has to be in an infrastructure package,” she said. Asked if that meant she would vote against a package that did not include it, Warren responded: “It’s not possible to talk about infrastructure in the 21st century without including child care.”
Because a major child care initiative is unlikely to attract Republican support, it would almost certainly have to pass on a party-line vote. In the Senate, that would require going through the “budget reconciliation” process, in order to avoid a Republican filibuster, and then holding on to the votes of all 50 Democratic senators so Vice President Kamala Harris could break the tie.
As Democratic leaders craft this legislation, they will be under pressure from their party’s more conservative members to downsize some priorities and postpone others, if only to keep down the overall price.
Warren, a vocal and influential leader in the party’s progressive wing, made clear on Wednesday that she is determined to push in the other direction ― to seek whatever spending it takes to make good on party promises, with child care for all at the top of the list.
She also rejected the suggestion that child care doesn’t belong alongside more traditional infrastructure proposals like tunnels and trains.
“Child care is about early childhood education,” Warren said. “It’s about making sure that mamas and daddies can go to work. And it’s about creating good jobs for women, predominantly women of color.”
Warren Says Pelosi Has ‘The Right Approach’
Democratic leaders now face a key strategic question about the precise packaging and sequencing of legislation.
A group of moderate Republicans, working with some moderate Democrats and with Biden’s support, have endorsed a smaller package limited to traditional, physical infrastructure. Democratic leaders, led by Pelosi, have said they are willing to support such legislation, but only in tandem with passing their other economic initiatives on a party-line vote.
“Let me be really clear on this: We will not take up a bill in the House until the Senate passes the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill,” Pelosi said last week.
Biden, for his part, has sent mixed signals ― initially threatening to veto a physical infrastructure bill if it was a stand-alone, without accompanying legislation on child care and other items on his agenda, but then taking back the explicit veto threat.
“I think Speaker Pelosi is right,” Warren told HuffPost, adding later that Pelosi has “the right approach.”
And although Warren allowed that “there are different ways that the voting might be ordered,” she also said “we’re not going to move roads and bridges forward and leave child care, clean energy and broadband back in the train station.”
Child Care Policy Is Popular, But Expensive
In principle, action on child care is the kind of thing that Congress could pass easily, with bipartisan support.
The pandemic has highlighted how much working families depend on child care and how much they struggle to find it. The available polling suggests that most Americans, including most Republican voters, favor more government spending to make child care more available.
And the U.S. government provides far less support for early childhood care and services than its counterparts in peer nations around the world.
But the debate over child care inevitably leads to debates over the boundaries between public and private responsibility, not to mention gender roles. And a meaningful investment in child care would just as inevitably cost a lot of money, to the chagrin of conservatives who would prefer to see government spending go down.
Biden’s proposal for early childhood programs, which includes subsidized child care and pre-kindergarten, envisions spending $450 billion over 10 years. Warren actually wants to spend even more.
Last week, she joined Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and leaders of the Democratic Women’s Caucus in an open letter calling for $700 billion in net new spending on early childhood programs.
That amount is a lot closer to what most analysts think it would take to put quality child care within financial reach for all Americans. It’s also closer to what Warren proposed when she was running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Like other Democrats in favor of such an ambitious plan, Warren has proposed to finance that new spending through taxes on the wealthy.
“$700 billion is our best estimate of what it takes to provide child care for every baby that needs it, every mama or daddy who wants to use it, and to make sure that every child care worker is paid according to the skills and time they invest in caregiving,” Warren said.
Warren sounded optimistic that Democrats would agree on including child care provisions in the final deal. Asked if moderate Democrats in the Senate were on board, Warren responded with a simple “yes.”
“I’m not saying anything to you that I haven’t said over and over at lunch with all of my Democratic Senate colleagues,” she said.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has suggested he would prefer to limit a reconciliation package to about $2 trillion in cost ― meaning Warren’s proposal would eat up more than a third of it, leaving less room for other Democratic priorities like an expansion of the child tax credit and free community college.
When asked how big she hoped a package would be, Warren rejected the idea of a specific limit and noted she’s proposed tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations that could raise $6 trillion.
“The dollar cap should be based on the infrastructure we need,” Warren said. “If someone comes up with an infrastructure plan that’s wholly inadequate, that leaves whole parts of what our nation needs behind, then simply saying ‘Oh, but we hit the cap,’ it’s not a success.”
Even Child Care Advocates Disagree On Some Details
The debate over child care legislation also includes some disagreements among the Democrats most committed to the cause ― in particular, over precisely how to design a program.
The leading proposal in Congress right now is the Child Care for Working Families Act, which would subsidize child care by modifying existing programs that provide money to the states. Its champion and lead sponsor in the Senate is Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
An array of advocacy groups that worked on that bill support it, as does Biden, who cited it as a model for legislation during the 2020 campaign. Warren has expressed some reservations, particularly over what amounts to a “work requirement” that would make assistance conditional on parents showing they are employed, looking for work or in school, or having some reason why they aren’t able.
Warren has objected to this, citing the administrative burdens it would create and the importance of recognizing child care as something that should be available regardless of parental circumstance.
“I believe it should be for all of our children in the same way that, in America, public education is available to every child,” Warren said. “Nobody asks parents if they have jobs before they will enroll a 7-year-old in the second grade.”
Notwithstanding those differences, Warren and legislative advocates like Murray largely agree on both the need for big action on child care and the importance of stressing quality, as well as affordability ― in particular, by raising the pay and benefits for child care workers, in order to attract and retain a more qualified workforce.
But that too costs money, which is why passing even a modest child care proposal, let alone a comprehensive one, will require a big push from advocates in Congress and the White House.