Democrats Are Trying To Salvage Their Party's Child Care Initiative

With providers struggling to find workers and parents struggling to find providers, two senators are out with a scaled-back proposal they hope can pass.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) spent the past year leading calls to create a comprehensive American child care program as part of the “Build Back Better” legislation that President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders were putting together.

But hopes of enacting that child care plan vanished when talks over Build Back Better collapsed in December, following objections from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that the legislation as a whole was too big and tried to do too much.

Now Murray is back with a new proposal. It addresses some of the concerns critics raised, and it’s a lot smaller than what she originally had in mind ― although, by American standards, it would still represent a historic investment in early childhood programs.

Murray is also coming back to the table with a new co-sponsor, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has his own record of supporting early childhood programs, and who has extra credibility with more conservative Democrats.

Murray and Kaine hope they can convince their colleagues to include this streamlined proposal as part of whatever larger spending bill they ultimately pass, as they try to pick up the pieces of the Build Back Better effort. But the key word there is “hope.” It’s an open question whether Democrats will agree to pass anything at all, let alone a bill that has enough room for big new spending on early childhood.

Still, the argument for action on child care has never been easier to make. All over the country, there are stories about child care providers struggling to find workers, because they can’t pay competitive wages, and unable to charge more for their services, because existing fees and tuition are already more than so many families can pay.

“The child care sector is on the brink of collapse and we have to act now to save it ― or families across the country will pay the price,” Murray said in a prepared statement. “I have spoken to so many moms and parents who had to quit their jobs entirely because they either couldn’t afford child care or they couldn’t find it, and to child care workers who are being paid poverty wages and can’t make ends meet ― it’s clear, this is an urgent crisis and it’s putting a huge strain on our entire economy.”

An Attempt To Do Something, Even If It’s Not Everything

Under the proposal that Murray and Kaine released late Monday afternoon, and that Politico first reported about a week ago, the federal government would plow between $150 billion and $200 billion into child care over the course of the 10-year budget planning window.

That amount can be dialed up or down, depending on what the Democrats would support. But whatever the topline number, the bulk of the spending would go through an existing program, the Child Care Development and Block Grant, that states already use to subsidize child care for low- and sometimes middle-income families.

One problem with the program is that it reaches only a fraction of the families who meet eligibility guidelines, because the money in it runs out so quickly. The proposed investment would triple the block grant’s funding, according to a new analysis from the Center on Law and Social Policy, allowing it to reach at least 1 million more kids while setting aside funds that providers could use to pay their workers more or to increase their capacity.

The proposal includes separate allocations for Head Start and state pre-kindergarten programs, as well as a pilot program under which states could make more sweeping changes to their child care systems.

Under that pilot program, states could get money to finance the kind of program that Murray and her allies had originally envisioned for the entire country ― one in which states would provide enough assistance to cap child care expenses at 7% of household income, while raising quality standards and worker pay.

The original Murray proposal envisioned a complex funding and regulatory scheme. Democrats from more conservative states worried that officials in their states might opt not to participate in it, echoing concerns that progressive analyst Matt Bruenig, of the People’s Policy Project, first raised.

The idea is that, under the new proposal, states that want to try such an ambitious undertaking could get funding from the pilot program. The rest could simply draw on the block grant, as they do now, but with a lot more money than was available before.

Hope For Consensus, Amid Lots Of Disagreement

Whether the legislation lives up to that hope, and addresses the past criticism, remains to be seen. But as with the old proposal, the biggest impediment to enacting the new one may have nothing to do with child care ― and everything to do with the willingness of the entire Democratic caucus, including Manchin and any other recalcitrant Democrats, to pass legislation in the first place.

Biden and Democratic leaders have said they are committed to passing some kind of bill. Manchin has said the same. But there has been a conspicuous lack of public progress and, lately, plenty of signs that Democrats are moving farther apart rather than closer together on a bill they can pass.

Just this past weekend, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blasted both Manchin and another conservative Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), saying the two had “sabotaged” Build Back Better.

In making the case against Build Back Better, Manchin frequently criticized the legislation because he said it had budget gimmicks. He was referring to the fact that several provisions came with funding for only a few years, even though their architects clearly (and in some cases openly) hoped that Congress would extend the funding once the appropriated money ran out.

It’s not clear how Manchin will react to the new child care proposal, in part because the bill leaves open some key funding questions. But a Murray aide told HuffPost that a major goal in redesigning and scaling back the program was to find a version that would get votes from all 50 Senate Democrats, which is what it would take to pass a bill.

“This revamped child care proposal was designed to get every Senator on board,” the aide said, adding that “it is streamlined and fully paid for within a revamped reconciliation package, it has been updated to address concerns in the caucus, it covers as long a timeframe as possible given the constraints of the [rules of the budget reconciliation process], and most importantly: it addresses the truly urgent child care crisis, which will only get worse if we don’t act now.”

Kaine’s presence could also make a difference, since he represents constituents who think a lot like Manchin’s and who, in some cases, live right across the state line.

Kaine has been a big supporter of government support for early childhood programs, going back to his time as governor of Virginia. In making the case for the new proposal on Monday, he emphasized its importance for the economy.

“If we want to build communities and an economy where every family can thrive, we must ensure that parents aren’t locked out of the workforce because they can’t find affordable care for their kids, and that child care workers aren’t forced to quit jobs they love because they can’t pay their bills,” Kaine said in a prepared statement.

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