Democrats think the newly created Child Tax Credit program—which began sending out monthly benefit checks to tens of millions of families this week—could be the most impactful policy victory of the Joe Biden era.
It could also be the key to keeping Congress and the White House in Democratic hands.
As congressional Democrats craft another multi-trillion-dollar package to solidify their economic agenda, some lawmakers are trying to set up a lengthy extension of the child tax credit—one that would double as a ticking political time bomb for the GOP.
Right now, the Child Tax Credit—which was created by the COVID bill that passed in March—is set to expire in a year. Many Democrats want to extend it permanently, but doing so could break the bank as they try to strike a delicate budgetary balance.
Instead, Democratic lawmakers are coalescing around extending the child tax benefit through 2024—not 2025, as the White House has proposed—which would set up a fight to reauthorize a signature Biden program precisely as the president makes his case for re-election.
Daring Republicans to oppose what could quickly be a massively popular program, say Democratic strategists, would hand them a massive political bludgeon to use against the Republicans who decide to come out against it.
“I can all but guarantee you Democrats are gonna tattoo it to their foreheads—and not to do it would be criminal,” said Cole Leiter, a Democratic strategist who formerly worked at the party’s House campaign arm.
Senate Democrats aren’t openly saying the political timeline is influencing their thinking on when to tee up the child benefit again—but are so convinced the program is good politics that they welcome a vote anytime.
“Republicans are going to have to decide,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who has been pushing a version of the child tax benefit since 2013. “This is going to be as popular as Social Security, so how dare they try to take it away?”
A source close to the White House put it another way. “If we do our job over the next six months, this is going to be a third rail. It’s going to be impossible to kill this thing,” the source said. “Regardless of how many years it gets extended in the budget process, it’s gonna be like Social Security.”
Republicans haven’t settled on a unified messaging strategy against the child benefit, though some have taken early stabs: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) called it a “handout” that is an “anti-work welfare check.” But his colleague, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), proposed a version of the CTC that some liberals hailed as better than Biden’s.
Against that backdrop, some Republicans aren’t so sure the CTC will be the political tripwire that Democrats are hoping it might be.
“I just don’t see Republicans walking into that line of argument,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist. He added that GOP leaders could cut off that attack by simply letting someone like Romney propose an amended or expanded child tax credit.
Some key Republicans, like Rubio, aren’t opposed to the generous size of the checks—just that they go out without any conditions on a parent’s employment status. Donovan predicted that upcoming battles on the benefit would amount to a “food fight on work requirements.”
Who controls the gavels on Capitol Hill when the 2024 fight comes up, however, could reflect how potent an issue the child benefit is in the 2022 midterm elections.
With all Republicans expected to vote against the vehicle for its extension—and with all Republicans having voted against its creation in the first place—Democrats are already plotting how they might leverage the issue to retain majorities in the House and Senate.
“It’s a huge deal,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the chair of Senate Democrats’ official campaign arm, told The Daily Beast. “And it’s going to be clear to voters come election time that Democrats support this, and Republicans oppose it.”
Democratic-aligned groups have already gotten started on that project. The day before the first payments went out, the Democratic super PAC American Bridge spammed reporter email inboxes with near-identical messages slamming vulnerable Republicans for opposing the creation of the tax credit, and linking every vulnerable Democratic senator to the checks about to hit families’ bank accounts.
Lindsay Owens, a former adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), is running Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive group that is leading strategy around advocating for the child benefit. She told The Daily Beast that it could be a meaningful corrective to the idea that Democrats aren’t as equipped to manage the economy as Republicans.
“We’ve been griping about conservative views on the economy for a long time, and we can’t beat something with nothing,” said Owens. “We haven’t had something that demonstrated an alternative theory.”
The program is structured such that parents making up to $75,000—or $150,000 per household—will get up to $300 directly per child, with payments coming directly in check form every month until December, for a total of $3,500 in potential stimulus cash per child.
Democrats have spent the last few weeks gearing up to sell the CTC to constituents. For a recent caucus meeting, House lawmakers brought in Phil Schiliro, a longtime strategist, to provide specific breakdowns of the program’s impacts tailored to the districts of all 200-plus House Democrats. Schiliro told The Daily Beast that campaign strategy didn’t come up, but added “good substance is usually good politics.”
Democrats stress that the details of the program’s future are still being worked out as part of their sweeping economic package—which seemingly contains every Democratic priority there is—but the expectation is that 2024 would be a better year to re-up the program than 2025.
Regardless of the politics, Democrats point out that in 2025, a set of tax cuts from the GOP’s 2017 tax bill are set to expire. That, Brown said, could give the GOP a lever to “extort” Democrats into concessions on the child tax benefit.
“We so desperately want to fight for moderate income and middle class, and low income people… they probably could get all the corporate give-away stuff that we don’t want to extend,” said Brown.
To some, political dynamics are partly reminiscent of the fight over the Affordable Care Act—a benefit that became popular enough with the public over time that by the time Republicans actually had a chance to overturn it, they couldn’t, and then lost their House majority shortly thereafter because of it.
One operative also drew comparisons to the tax cuts passed under George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003. Democrats hated them, but they remained long enough to become a fixed part of the tax landscape, and Barack Obama made the benefit permanent for most Americans in 2012.
But the ACA was an albatross for Democrats before it was an effective weapon in swing districts, due to the slow, gradual way it was implemented. The child tax credit passed just months ago and is already having among the most tangible impacts a federal program can: direct checks in bank accounts.
“Learning from the ACA fight, Democrats should already be thinking of the 2024 reauthorization not as a reauthorization fight, but as a fight over whether Republicans are gonna raise middle-class families’ taxes, period,” said Leiter, who worked at the DCCC during their successful effort to win back the House in 2018 through a relentless focus on the ACA.
It was so bruising that Republicans have come around to embracing parts of the law and asserting that they always supported key provisions, like access to care for those with pre-existing conditions.
That backdrop, plus the recent trend of Republicans claiming credit for aspects of the COVID relief bill they voted against, leaves Democrats like Brown with a prediction about the CTC.
“I mean, within three years, Republicans are gonna say this was their idea,” he said, “even though they all voted against it.”