In Scranton visit, Biden is right at home, again

Trip comes amid ongoing internal discussions among Democrats on Capitol Hill

President Joe Biden speaks Wednesday after touring the Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton, Pa. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks Wednesday after touring the Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton, Pa. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted October 20, 2021 at 7:42pm

President Joe Biden was back in his Pennsylvania hometown of Scranton on Wednesday, taking his pitch for a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure deal and reconciliation package to a classic swing district and with the full support of the area’s Democratic lawmakers.

Before the visit, Rep. Matt Cartwright, a rare Democrat who prevailed last fall in a House district carried by President Donald Trump, wanted to discuss the economic effects of parts of Biden’s Build Back Better proposals, including how improving child care affordability could help more people return to the retail and restaurant workforce.

“People like to call them social programs. These are employer-friendly programs,” Cartwright said in a Tuesday interview. “In the Build Back Better plan, there’s so many things that address the concerns of employers in our area. Even before the pandemic, manufacturers, all saying the same lament, which was, they couldn’t find qualified people to fill manufacturing jobs. The Build Back Better plan has a lot of money in it for workforce development, for that very purpose.”

Cartwright, who chairs the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, represents Scranton and other parts of northeast Pennsylvania and is also among the lawmakers pushing for climate action as part of the final package, seeing it as a step toward jobs redevelopment.

“Northeastern Pennsylvania used to be the coal mining capital of the world, and almost no coal is mined from our area now,” he said. “So that is naturally and normally going to give me a different outlook from Sen. Manchin on that question.” West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III has fought against including in the reconciliation package clean energy incentives and other provisions that might adversely affect the coal industry.

Cartwright knows the dynamics of his district, which has been slightly reconfigured by the courts since he was first elected in 2012. He won reelection in 2020 with 52 percent of the vote, even as district voters were backing Trump by a similar percentage. Pennsylvania is losing a seat in reapportionment, so the district will be altered again, adding an extra level of uncertainty to his reelection bid. Cartwright is among 32 House Democrats in the party’s Frontline Program, which provides extra resources and funding through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to members considered the most vulnerable.

Also joining the president on his trip Wednesday was another hometown son, Democrat Bob Casey, the state’s senior senator. Casey, who was first elected in 2006, is the scion of another legendary Scranton Democrat, the late Gov. Bob Casey Sr.

Any presidential trip gives lawmakers — especially in the president’s own party — a chance to highlight parts of the physical and social infrastructure plans that are of particular interest to them. For Casey, that list included proposed funding for home and community-based services, to support care for seniors and persons with disabilities in a variety of settings.

Casey, who chairs the Senate Aging Committee, received a shoutout from Biden on Wednesday for his support for elder care programs.

Support for the care economy was among the highlights of the reconciliation bill under discussion that White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki sought to highlight on the way to Scranton.

“What’s very clear is this package is going to have a fundamental impact on the care economy and on issues that impact working people every single day: the cost of child care, lack of access to universal pre-K, the cost of elder care and worry about caring for parents, people’s concern about the climate and what impact that’s going to have on their children and grandchildren,” she told reporters traveling with Biden on Air Force One.

The venue for the president’s speech to promote his agenda was quintessential Biden: Scranton’s Electric City Trolley Museum.

Biden toured the museum, including making a stop at a trolley car 46, before offering largely familiar remarks on his time growing up in Scranton, his decades of commuting from Delaware to Washington aboard Amtrak and the importance of enacting his agenda.

“We risk losing our edge as a nation. Our infrastructure used to be the best in the world, not a joke, the best in the world. Today, according to the World Economic Forum, we’re ranked 13th in the world in terms of infrastructure — roads, bridges, highways, internet, the whole works,” the president said. “We used to lead the world with educational achievement.”

The White House argues that making the case for Biden’s agenda is easier when not seen through the prism of official Washington since most Americans don’t obsess about legislative maneuvering and the vagaries of the budget reconciliation process.

“Most people out there in the country, in Scranton and in Pennsylvania, they’re not as focused on the machinations of who’s up and who’s down and the exact numbers. They’re focused on how this is going to help them and how it’s going to impact their lives,” Psaki told reporters on Air Force One.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill, which continues to await action in the House, does not include specific earmarks, but the White House said there are some 3,353 bridges and in excess of 7,500 highway miles in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania in “poor condition.”

Northeast Pennsylvania could also benefit from the possible restoration of the rail line at the Lackawanna Cutoff, which could bring Amtrak service between Scranton and New York City. That might have explained the presence of Bill Flynn and Stephen Gardner, the respective CEO and president of Amtrak, both of whom were recognized by Cartwright in his remarks at the trolley museum.

Much of the focus back in Washington has been on the topline number for the reconciliation bill and how to get an agreement between different factions of the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate. Much of the focus has been on Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who both balked at the initial $3.5 trillion price tag, which is now expected to be around $2 trillion, and several provisions.

On Wednesday, Biden was in sync with Cartwright on how the climate provisions in the two legislative packages match up with job needs in places like Scranton.

“This is the United States of America, damn it. What are we doing?” the president said. “These bills are going to help us meet the moment on the climate crisis in a way that creates good jobs and makes us more economically competitive.”