WASHINGTON ― Republicans are going to war over one of the most popular proposals Democrats are seeking to enshrine into law: a new federal program that could help millions of families get affordable child care for the first time.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) devoted a large majority of his floor speech to attacking the proposed child care plan as exceedingly complicated, maintaining that Democrats’ “toddler takeover” would make Americans’ hellish child care situation even worse.
“If you like your child care, you can keep your child care!” McConnell mocked, arguing there would be implementation headaches like those associated with the Affordable Care Act. “Buckle up, parents. What could go wrong?”
Democrats have a simple pitch for their child care proposal: No family will pay more than 7% of its income on child care, thanks to new federal subsidies. Along with “universal” prekindergarten and monthly cash payments for parents, the child care proposal is a pillar of the benefits for working families in the Build Back Better legislation, which Democrats are hoping to pass by the end of the year.
But the actual plan is a lot more complex than the pitch. Subsidies would vary based on household income, and eligibility for them would rise over a three-year transition period, cutting off at 100% of state median income in year one and then reaching 250% after year three.
Child care providers would have to meet state licensing requirements and states would have three years to set up a tiered system for evaluating provider quality. Providers would have to pay their workers living wages, using a pay scale that would make sure workers in child care make roughly the same as workers with similar credentials in their local public school systems.
In attacking the Democratic proposal, McConnell cited a progressive critic that argued the program would expose some families to higher, even prohibitive costs, especially during the three-year transition period, because the quality and wage requirements would push up child care prices even for families who were not eligible for assistance.
The program’s advocates, both in and out of Congress, have strongly disputed that claim. And regardless of whether the claim is true, the new Democratic initiative could transform the lives of millions of Americans, with thousands of dollars in savings on average for low-income and middle-class families.
Exactly how many would benefit is difficult to say, because the whole program would depend on state participation, with many states almost sure to say no. And the appropriation would run out after six years, which means the funding ― and the subsidies ― would vanish if lawmakers don’t pass legislation to extend it in the future.
Still, the roughly $400 billion in new federal spending would represent the largest investment in the early childhood years in American history. And it would dwarf narrower proposals from congressional Republicans, such as expanded tax credits and flexible spending accounts, that would ultimately provide much less assistance.
“Obviously, Sen. McConnell does not have small children and he has not looked for child care so he could make it to the office every day,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a top child care funding advocate, told HuffPost.
“I think Sen. McConnell is feeling the heat,” she added.
Democrats are betting that it will be difficult for Republicans to oppose popular elements of Build Back Better, such as child care and universal pre-K. They’re counting on passage of the bill, which is no sure thing yet, to lift the party’s standing ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
According to a recent Hart Research poll, nearly 70% of voters, including a majority of Republicans, want Congress to prioritize providing affordable child care this year.
“It’s deeply surprising that Republicans would go after something so popular like child care,” Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist, told HuffPost. “One of the key things in the Build Back Better legislation is the cost-cutting components of the bill, and the child care pieces are a key part of that. They’re really playing with fire when they go after child care.”
McConnell also said the Democratic plan would put child care providers affiliated with religion at a disadvantage, by requiring that providers in the program abide by nondiscrimination rules and prohibiting the use of government funds for facilities that are used for sectarian purposes.
“Washington Democrats want to unleash the woke mob on church day care,” McConnell said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America have indeed raised concerns that the legislation’s language would make it difficult, if not impossible, for some religious providers to participate in the program
But Democratic staff and their allies have insisted the groups are misreading the legislation, which states plainly that “Nothing in this section shall preclude the use of [subsidies] for sectarian child care services if freely chosen by the parent.” They note that a primary goal of the Democratic plan is to work with existing child care providers, many of which are religious institutions and already comply with anti-discrimination rules tied to other government funding programs.
The longer the debate over Build Back Better goes on, the more chances Republicans will have to turn public opinion against the legislation. Already, there are doubts that Democrats will be able to send the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk by the end of the month as they had set out to do. If they are unable to do so, the process could drag even further into next year and could prevent Democrats from promoting the new measures to voters as a path to retaining their narrow congressional majorities.
“I know they think this polls well, but the more people find out what’s in the bill, the less popular it is,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told HuffPost.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.