Biden pushes for $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package

GOP critics immediately call it too much, too fast

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris looks on as President-elect Joe Biden speaks Thursday evening as he lays out his plan for combating the coronavirus and jump-starting the economy. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris looks on as President-elect Joe Biden speaks Thursday evening as he lays out his plan for combating the coronavirus and jump-starting the economy. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Posted January 14, 2021 at 5:00pm

President-elect Joe Biden began lobbying Congress to quickly approve a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid plan to improve vaccine distribution, provide direct payments to Americans and bolster state and local government coffers.

In a televised speech Thursday evening, Biden delivered a message that appeared tailored for Republicans and more fiscally moderate Democrats who are unlikely to cheer the prospect of another costly pandemic relief bill just weeks after lawmakers approved a $902 billion package.

The former Delaware Democratic senator argued that lawmakers not only have an “economic imperative to act now” but a “moral obligation” to help the nation weather a pandemic that has killed more than 385,000 Americans.

In addition to bolstering the health care system and the economy, Biden said, his plan would help correct long-standing economic disparities that worsened during the last year.

“The decisions we make in the next few weeks and months are going to determine whether we thrive in a way that benefits all Americans, or whether we stay stuck in a place where those at the top do great while economic growth for most everyone else is just a spectator sport,” Biden said.

But Republican senators fired off warning shots on Twitter that Biden was seeking to do too much too fast.

“Reminder that a bipartisan $900 billion #COVID19 relief bill became law just 18 days ago,” tweeted Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

And Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Biden’s plan was too sweeping to pass quickly. Rubio urged the president-elect to focus on passing his proposed $1,400 tax rebate checks. “Let’s get the extra money to people first,” Rubio tweeted.

The plan Biden rolled out Thursday will be the first of two legislative initiatives the incoming administration wants Congress to approve in the coming weeks

The second proposal will likely be released in February and will focus on recovering from the pandemic. That proposal is expected to include funding for addressing climate change through job development and infrastructure as well as addressing the health care workforce.

The first aid request, focused on more immediate needs, will ask Congress to provide $1 trillion in direct support to Americans through $1,400 tax rebate checks for individuals and expanded $400 weekly federal unemployment insurance through September; $440 billion in funding for communities and small businesses; and $400 billion for direct pandemic relief such as vaccine distribution, testing and providing schools the resources they need to return to in-person learning.

“This is a national emergency and we need to treat it like one,” one official said.

Biden will ask Congress to approve $350 billion in additional aid to state, local and tribal governments. The officials said the funding is needed to help distribute vaccines and help local governments address budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic.

Getting that funding approved will be especially challenging for the incoming president.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has tied additional state and local funding to providing liability protections to businesses and universities.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer have rejected the idea that Congress should provide legal protection that could put workers at risk of exposure to the virus or unsafe working conditions.

The issue gridlocked Congress for months last year until party leaders set aside both to pass the latest $902 billion virus aid package.

The Biden team will also have a tough time getting broad bipartisan support for increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 and eliminating lower minimum wages for tipped workers and people with disabilities. One Biden official said the president-elect believes now is "an economically smart" moment to lift the minimum wage.

[Biden preps coronavirus 'rescue' plan, with 'recovery' bill to follow]

Among the dozens of line items in the forthcoming package that could see some bipartisan support is billions of dollars to address food insecurity, emergency paid leave and affordable child care.

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Biden is also proposing that Congress approve an extension and expansion of the child tax credit that would be fully refundable for the year as well as increase to $3,000 per child or $3,600 for children under six years old. The credit currently maxes out at $2,000, but lower-income workers don't receive the full value of the credit because it's only refundable up to $1,400.

The officials said Thursday that Biden and his transition team believe the request is “pragmatic” and “urgently necessary” to address the ongoing health care and economic crisis.

The health care portion of the proposal calls on lawmakers to approve $20 billion for a national vaccination program that would include community vaccination centers as well as mobile vaccination units. A total of $50 billion should be approved for enhanced COVID-19 testing, they said.

The Biden team is proposing that Congress provide funding to establish a 100,000-person public health jobs corps that would work with local health care providers and communities on vaccine outreach and contact tracing, according to the officials.

A total of $30 billion would go into the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund to help supply health care workers and first responders with personal protective equipment and supplies. It would also increase the amount of money the federal government reimburses states for National Guard activations from 75 percent to 100 percent.

To ensure that all Americans can access the vaccine free of charge, the Biden proposal will ask Congress to expand federal Medicaid assistance to 100 percent “so states do not bear the brunt of protecting the most vulnerable populations,” one official said.

The Biden administration isn’t proposing any offsets with its supplemental spending request, consistent with the way Congress approved prior pandemic aid packages during the Trump administration.

'Pragmatism and unity'

Biden is expected to call for a “move toward pragmatism and unity” in his Thursday evening speech as a way to encourage lawmakers to move quickly on another relief package.

Whether Republican leaders will want to work with the incoming administration on a nearly $2 trillion proposal just days after the House voted to impeach President Donald Trump for inciting a violent mob to attack the Capitol is unclear. They were also hesitant to provide any more than the $902 billion, which was just signed into law weeks ago.

Democrats have the option of resorting to a budget reconciliation package if bipartisanship falters. Such a measure would require only a simple majority in the Senate to pass, but the process is time-consuming and can have substantial limitations.

Any policy language that doesn't have a direct budgetary impact could have to be removed, for instance, and it's not clear whether discretionary funds would be allowed.

David Lerman and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.