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Biden pushes infrastructure bill at Baltimore town hall

President Biden speaks at a CNN Town Hall in Baltimore.
Courtesy of Virginia Byrne
Courtesy of Virginia Byrne
President Biden speaks at a podium. On Thursday, he made his first visit to Baltimore as chief executive.

President Joe Biden pushed his scaled-back infrastructure bill and Build Back Better agenda at a CNN town hall in Baltimore Thursday night, marking his first visit to the city as chief executive.

“Compromise has become a dirty word, but bipartisanship and compromise still has to be possible,” the Democrat said.

The 90-minute town hall took place at Center Stage, an intimate venue in Mount Vernon. The 541-seat theater was filled with an invitation-only audience; CNN solicited questions from what a spokesman described as “a broad range of civic, business and political groups” and invited some respondents to pose those questions to Biden.

Many of them tied back to Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill to invest in roads and bridges, water infrastructure and internet services, as well as a social initiatives package that includes a wide variety of Democratic priorities, including universal prekindergarten, two years of free community college and Medicare expansion.

Though Biden did not speak specifically about Baltimore or Maryland, beyond acknowledging the region’s public officials, he answered questions mainly from local residents.

John Meche, a doctoral candidate at Morgan State University and an independent, asked why Biden isn’t using more force to push through his agenda.

“I had so much faith in your election win, but based on history, the bipartisan efforts of the Democratic Party are held hostage by rogue moderates and Republicans,” Meche said. “Why not do like the Republicans and usher through the Democratic agenda?”

“We're down to four or five issues, which I'm not going to negotiate on national television, as you might guess,” Biden said. “But all kidding aside, I think we can get there.”

Nicholas Vaught, an administrator at Morgan State University, told Biden that the cost of childcare for his two young boys is nearly twice his mortgage, asking, “How can your legislation help middle-class families pay for child care?”

Biden answered that his legislation will cap a family’s child care expenses at 7% of their household income through a tax credit but confirmed that paid parental leave has been scaled back in the evolving package. “It is down to four weeks. The reason it’s down to four weeks is I can’t get 12 weeks,” he said.

In opening remarks, which CNN did not livestream, Mayor Brandon Scott praised Biden’s American Rescue Plan act, which gave Baltimore $641 million to spend on coronavirus recovery efforts and infrastructure investment.

In an interview ahead of the town hall, Scott told WYPR that Biden’s stint in office has been “night and day, Jekyll and Hyde from the previous administration.”

Former President Donald Trump “used our city as a place to stomp on,” the Democrat said. “President Biden actually sees Baltimore as a city, understands the city.”

What work remains, Scott said, is passing the president’s legislation “so that we can help our country come back not just from the pandemic, not just from four years of having a someone who didn't fit the mold of being in that office, in that chair, but from all the inequities that have been created in our country over the years.”

Scott met with Biden shortly before the town hall. Ahead of that meeting, the mayor said he would advocate for affordable housing solutions and measures to increase Black homeownership, as well as investment in gun violence prevention programming rooted in public health and social support.

He also urged the president to better support historically Black colleges and universities. Biden’s legislation originally called for $20 billion for HBCUs, as an overdue down payment on leveling the playing field between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions with immense endowments. The most recent House bill sets aside just $2 billion.

“We know the history of places like Morgan State and Coppin State and what they've done for Baltimore and for this country and the world. We have to support them,” Scott said.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said in a statement that he appreciates Biden’s visit to Baltimore and urged him to focus on “bipartisan, common sense solutions to the serious problems that face us.”

“While he is here discussing his legislative agenda, I hope the president will address why he has abandoned the bipartisan infrastructure deal which we spent months crafting,” he said. “If the president truly seeks to bring us together, then I urge him to use this town hall to focus on bipartisan, common sense solutions to the serious problems that face us.”

Though the town hall, moderated by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, was invite-only, several local activist groups sent messages outside of Central Stage. Food & Water Watch protestors urged the president to end fossil fuel production; supporters and members of the migrant-rights group CASA demanded that he wrap immigration relief into his agenda.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.