In a virtual Northwest Passages forum with The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray laid out her vision for remedying the nation's lack of affordable child care, which she called a "silent epidemic in our country."
The Washington state Democrat made the case for her party's ambitious legislative agenda based on the "American Jobs Plan" and "American Families Plan" the White House rolled out in March and April. President Joe Biden incorporated legislation Murray first introduced in 2017 that would expand access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, reduce the cost of child care for low- and middle-income families, and raise child care workers' pay.
"I think this is so important for our country to finally make the opportunity available to go to work and not stress about how they're going to have quality care for their children, so women and men can contribute to our economy," she said.
Murray also connected the child care issue to her own family's experience.
"I grew up in a family with seven kids, and my dad went to work and my mom stayed home with us," she said. "He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and all of a sudden my mom could no longer take care of her kids, take care of my dad and work. So I saw, generations ago, the challenge of women being able to provide for their families.
"I mean, my mom surely thought she would never have to work, but she did because of the circumstances, and the barrier for her was: What do you do with your kids? And now here we are today, where my daughter is still facing the same challenges because our families don't have a good child care policy in this country."
Although Democrats passed a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief and economic stimulus package in March, Murray said Congress needs to do more than just return the country to a pre-pandemic "normal."
"I mean, people say to me all the time, 'I want to get back to normal, but gosh, normal wasn't all that great, and now I know it because I see that child care is a huge barrier,' " she said.
While congressional Republicans have balked at the price tag on Biden's plans — roughly $4 trillion combined over a decade — Murray defended her party's proposals as necessary to fix a system that didn't work for many Americans even before COVID-19.
"I don't see this as the era of big spending," she said. "I see this as an era where we are saying the 'you're on your own, good luck' philosophy didn't work.
"Ask anybody who drives through a city today and sees people on the streets. Ask anybody who sees the industry of child care that has fallen apart. Ask anybody who's trying to get employees back to restaurants today. We did not have the basic things in place to be able to recover from this, and what we had going before wasn't working for us."
Biden has proposed paying for the massive federal spending by overhauling the tax code — partially rolling back tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy — while restoring depleted funding to the Internal Revenue Service to help the agency close the "tax gap" between what corporations and the richest Americans owe and what they actually pay.
"Guess who's getting away with not paying their taxes," Murray said. "It's not you. It's not me. It's not the average American who's just trying to make ends meet.
"It is the wealthiest, who have so many tax loopholes, or don't pay their taxes because nobody's ever going to come around and check.
"Actually funding the IRS and making it do its job and working to collect those taxes that people owe at the top is going to make a difference in being able to pay for this."
Biden has said he wants to strike a bipartisan deal with the GOP on an infrastructure package, and some Republicans have made a counteroffer far below the more than $2 trillion the White House has proposed. Murray said she's open to negotiating but suggested Republicans may not be negotiating in good faith.
"The president is doing exactly what he should be doing, reaching out his hand and saying, 'These are our ideas. What are your ideas? Where can we meet in the middle?' " Murray said. "I've passed major legislation and that is how you get things done in a bipartisan way, but in order for that to work you have to have partners on both sides that are willing to reach out and work together to find a path forward."
Asked what kinds of conversations are taking place between the parties on a bipartisan deal, Murray said she was willing to talk, but not indefinitely.
"I do have Republican colleagues who are interested (in compromise), especially in the child care arena," she said. "Because, as they know, our businesses are not able to get reopened and have people back to work if people don't feel they're safe at work, or if people don't feel that their kids are safe in child care.
"Arms are open. Let's figure out a way to move this forward. But again, if this gets dragged on for months and months and months merely to have it not ever pass, I'm not willing to wait, and I don't think families in America should have to wait."