Monday, June 14, 2021

in-focus

Biden unveiling $1.9 trillion economic and health care relief package


WASHINGTON - Poised to inherit a health-care disaster and a deteriorating economy, President-elect Joe Biden is laying out a $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan Thursday night that will serve as an early test of his ability to steer the nation out of the pandemic disasters and make good on his promises to unite a divided Congress.

1,031

View

The wide-ranging package is designed to take aim at the twin crises Biden will confront upon taking office Jan. 20, with a series of provisions delivering direct aid to American families, businesses, and communities, and a major focus on coronavirus testing and vaccine production and delivery as the pandemic surge continues.

Biden is aiming to get GOP support for the measure, senior transition officials said, although at nearly $2 trillion the price tag is likely to be too high for many Republicans to swallow. But after campaigning as a bipartisan deal-maker, Biden wants to at least give Republicans the opportunity to get behind his first legislative effort as president.

"We think there is a broad understanding of the urgency of the moment, of the immediacy of the crisis and the need to act," a senior Biden administration official told reporters ahead of the speech. "And so we're hopeful that the ideas that are laid out here and the action that is reflected here is something that there's a lot of support for, and you're going to see the president-elect tonight call for the kind of move toward pragmatism and unity to try to get something done."

The package is titled the "American Rescue Plan." Biden officials described it as a package of emergency measures to meet the nation's immediate economic and health care needs, to be followed in February by a broader relief plan.

The proposal, which Biden will lay out in a speech at 7:15 p.m. Eastern time Thursday night, comes at a critical time for the nation. More than 4,200 people in the United States died of the coronavirus on Tuesday, a new daily-record high. Also, the economic recovery appears to be backsliding, with jobless claims spiking to a new high since August, as nearly a million people filed for unemployment last week.

It also comes six days before Biden's inauguration, and a day after the House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump, highlighting the president-elect's challenge of trying to get his top agenda item passed even as the Senate is likely to be enmeshed in an impeachment trial. Biden has expressed the hope that the Senate can simultaneously move forward on his agenda while also conducting an impeachment trial, although it's unclear how well that might work in practice.

The plan contains a raft of provisions that build on the approximately $4 trillion Congress has already devoted to addressing the pandemic, which included a $900 billion measure Trump signed in December which Biden has repeatedly described as unfinished business.

It is divided into three major areas: $400 billion for provisions to fight the coronavirus with more vaccines and testing, while reopening schools; more than $1 trillion in direct relief to families, including through stimulus payments and increased unemployment insurance benefits; and $440 billion for aid to communities and businesses, including $350 billion in emergency funding to state, local and tribal governments.

The plan will aim to make good on Biden's plan for a universal vaccination program, devoting $20 billion to that goal, as well as $50 billion for a "massive expansion" of testing and $130 billion to help schools reopen safely. Among the many goals laid out in the proposal, Biden hopes to deliver 100 million vaccine shots in 100 days, and re-open a majority of K-12 public schools in that same time frame.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had urged Biden to consider a higher price tag than what he was initially eyeing for the proposal, according to a person familiar with the conversation who spoke on condition of anonymity to recount the conversation. The size and scope of the package exceeded the expectations of a number of outside advocates, while answering demands from economists for a major new investment to get the economy on a sounder footing.

"We do need more stimulus. In the United States, fortunately, there is fiscal space to do so," International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said in an interview with The Washington Post, adding that she favored "sizable support."

The legislation includes a number of priorities sought by top congressional Democrats, including some of the more liberal members, from increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour to adding billions in funding for childcare.

Biden calls for increasing federal unemployment benefits from $300 per week to $400 per week for millions of jobless Americans. The benefits would be extended through September, preventing millions of people from losing their jobless aid in March, as would occur under current law. Biden's plan states that he will also "work with Congress" to link the level of unemployment benefits to general economic factors, aiming to implement "automatic stabilizers" long sought by Democratic policy experts. These measures would require the federal government to automatically increase benefits when the unemployment rate spikes, meaning federal support could not be contingent on Washington gridlock.

As expected, Biden's proposal would also increase to $2,000 per person the stimulus payments approved by Congress in December, which had been $600 per person. Trump enthusiastically endorsed the $2,000 stimulus payments, as did congressional Democratic leaders, but many Republicans oppose the idea. Biden's plan would also expand eligibility for the stimulus payments to families where one parent is an immigrant, as well as to adult children claimed as dependents on their parents' tax returns. Both categories were excluded in the last relief packages due to GOP opposition. About 13.5 million adult dependents were excluded from the checks as a result, including millions of disabled people.

A major expansion of tax credits is also included in Biden's proposal, both for children and lower-income workers. Biden's plan would expand a tax credit for children to $3,600 a year per child under six years of age, as well as $3,000 a year for children under 17. It would also extend eligibility for the credit to millions of very poor families who currently cannot access it. It would also dramatically boost the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax benefit to workers, from $530 to $1,500, while also expanding eligibility for that program.

The size of the package and its embrace of multiple liberal priorities that are anathema to Republicans -- including a large sum for state and local governments, which has proven a sticking point for the GOP for months -- raises questions about how much bipartisan support Biden will be able to get for the proposal. Biden is already facing pressure from liberals on Capitol Hill who want to use their newfound control of Congress to push through aggressive and costly legislation.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who will chair the Budget Committee, has said he is working to put together a massive stimulus bill that could pass under special budget rules with a simple majority vote in the Senate, instead of the 60-vote margin normally required.

Biden, however, wants to try for a bipartisan majority on his first bill. Democratic aides say that if Republicans do not appear willing to cooperate, they can shift gears quickly and move to "budget reconciliation," the procedure that would allow them to pass legislation without GOP votes. That was the process Republicans used to pass their big tax cut bill after Trump took office and that President Barack Obama used for the Affordable Care Act.

The Senate will be divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats in the new Congress, giving Democrats control of the chamber because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will have the tie-breaking vote. Democrats' 222-211 majority in the House is the narrowest for either party in years.

Published : January 15, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Erica Werner, Jeff Stein