As Vice President Kamala Harris touted a plan to replace millions of lead pipes Thursday morning, Democratic Party leaders were turning away from the bill that would bring those plans to fruition.

Harris spoke at the offices of AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, about the decadeslong struggle to eliminate lead pipes in homes, schools, and places of business across the country.

"Over the years, I have traveled around the country and I have met many parents to talk about this very issue, so many parents — parents who are worried that every time they turned on the faucet to get their child a glass of water, that they may be filling that glass with poison," Harris said at the office building near the White House.

Plans to replace lead pipes, which can cause damage to the brain and kidneys if the chemical seeps into the water, are a big part of the Biden administration's goals. But it's a goal that still needs more funding.


For the lead pipe plan to be fully implemented, the imperiled $2.4 trillion Build Back Better Act needs to pass, which won't happen until at least 2022 and could slip away entirely.

The longer President Joe Biden kicks "this can down the road, the less likely it is that it's going to pass," Republican strategist Ralph Reed told the Washington Examiner earlier this week.

Some money has already been allocated to address the issue. The bipartisan infrastructure bill includes $2.9 billion for lead pipe replacement in 2022 and $15 billion overall. But the White House said it will take $45 billion to replace every lead pipe in the country and that the social spending bill will be needed to make that a reality. Democrats are promoting the issue as another reason to pass the bill.

"Without BBB, many communities historically denied clean water will continue to be denied. Build Back Better has lead [funding] for disadvantaged communities," New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. "We must keep pushing for BBB."

Up to 10 million households, schools, and care facilities still use lead pipes, and it can cost thousands of dollars to replace one. High-profile issues with contaminated water have led to national headlines over the years, including in Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey. The problem is often more acute in rural and low-income areas with older housing stock.

Replacing lead pipes has also been touted, along with much of the Biden agenda, as a means to creating jobs. Harris drew cheers at the AFL-CIO for saying the funds will lead to more union workers.

"As we replace lead service lines and upgrade our water infrastructure, we are not only doing work that is good and important — we are also creating jobs," she said. "And we are creating good union jobs — good union jobs."

All of that is off the table if the White House and Democratic leaders can't wrangle a version of the bill through the Senate, which is split 50-50.

Talks regarding the social spending between Biden and notable holdout Sen. Joe Manchin stalled earlier in the week, leading to a shift in focus away from Build Back Better and toward voting rights.

Several Democrats expressed frustration that the bipartisan infrastructure deal didn't include enough funding to eradicate lead pipes.

“We shouldn’t settle for only some children being protected from lead,” Rep. Paul Tonko, a New York Democrat, said during a press conference in August.

Those hopes now rest on a bill that is mainly focused on programs such as universal pre-K, child tax credits, and subsidized child care rather than on infrastructure.


With 2021 drawing to a close, the White House said it will keep up the fight in the new year.

"[Biden] wants to deliver the Build Back Better plan for the American families as soon as possible," principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a press briefing about the lead pipe plan on Thursday. "But we understand that it's going to take time, and we're going to continue doing the work."