President Joe Biden signs one of 17 executive orders on Inauguration Day Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in the Oval Office. (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Friday he’s seeking to “act fast” on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package he’s proposed, endorsing the path forged by congressional Democrats to position that legislation for a vote that could pass without support from Republicans.
Biden’s remarks concluded a week he began by meeting with Senate Republicans, who had outlined a smaller, $600 billion pandemic assistance measure. During a brief speech Friday at the White House, Biden said while he would like to find Republican support for another coronavirus relief bill, the GOP proposals so far are “either to do nothing, or not enough.”
“The way I see it, the biggest risk is not going too big,” Biden said. “It’s if we go too small.”
Biden’s wide-ranging proposal calls for $1,400 direct payments to Americans; a renewal of boosted unemployment benefits; extended protections against evictions and foreclosures; more help with child-care costs; $15-per-hour minimum wage; and paid sick and family and medical leave to help those burdened with additional caregiving responsibilities.
It also would provide more money for vaccines and testing; send a raft of aid to state governments, including $350 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments to keep public workers on the job; and boost money for small-business financing programs.
Budget blueprint passes
Congressional Democrats took the first steps this week to get that pandemic relief plan to the president’s desk quickly.
The Democratic-controlled House and Senate both passed a budget resolution, a non-binding document necessary for approving the package through reconciliation, a procedure that allows a majority vote instead of the 60 votes often needed in the Senate. The House on Friday afternoon passed the final version of the budget blueprint.
In a message to House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday that they’ll begin drafting the legislative text of the president’s relief plan next week, “so that we can finish our work before the end of February.”
But several moderate Democrats and a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers urged this week to move faster on the portion of Biden’s plan directly related to COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.
Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) and Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) urged top Democrats to hold a vote on provisions related to vaccine development and distribution, arguing those parts of the proposal could be passed more quickly than the broad package.
“Providing immediate support for vaccination efforts would save lives and strengthen the economy as we work to finalize the full rescue plan,” they wrote in a letter to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The 56-member Problem Solvers Caucus made a similar push for carving out an initial bill with the $160 billion that Biden proposed to boost vaccinations, testing and protective equipment for health care workers.
But Biden rejected calls for a smaller package Friday, arguing that making bigger investments now would be a better long-term strategy for shoring up the nation’s economy.
“If we make these investments now with interest rates at historic lows, we’ll generate more growth, higher incomes, a stronger economy, and our nation’s finances will be in a stronger position as well,” he said.
New guidance for schools coming
The Biden administration also has been taking steps to bolster the pandemic response that don’t require congressional action.
New guidance on school reopening is expected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention next week, according to the agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
The updated guidelines follow Walensky’s remarks this week that vaccinating teachers is “not a prerequisite” for safely reopening schools, a comment that the White House later said was not official guidance from the agency.
To assist with COVID-19 vaccinations, the Department of Defense will be sending 1,000 active-duty military personnel to support state efforts. The first military personnel will deploy to California by mid-February. Additional locations have not been disclosed.
Biden’s COVID-19 task force also announced Friday new efforts using the Defense Production Act to boost production of equipment and supplies for Pfizer vaccine production, for at-home testing kits, and for more personal protective gear, like disposable gloves.
As he announced those actions, Tim Manning, the White House’s supply coordinator, also put in a plug for congressional action on the president’s broader relief package. Proposals for new efforts like more genomic sequencing of the evolving virus variants will require more funding from that bill, Manning said.
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