Joe Biden urged Congress to swiftly pass a $1.9tn relief package, emphasizing the collective financial and emotional stress millions of Americans face as the pandemic that has claimed more than 450,000 lives continues into its second year.
“I know some in Congress think we’ve already done enough to deal with the crisis in the country,” he said. “Others think that things are getting better and we can afford to sit back and either do little or do nothing at all. That’s not what I see. I see enormous pain in this country. A lot of folks out of work. A lot of folks going hungry.”
By a party-line vote of 219-209, the House of Representatives passed a budget plan, after the Senate approved it in a pre-dawn vote. Vice-President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate for the first time.
Congress can now work to write a bill that can be passed by a simple majority in both houses, which are controlled by Democrats. Mid-March has been suggested as a likely date by which the measure could be passed, a point at which enhanced unemployment benefits will expire if Congress does not act.
“The simple truth is, if we make these investments now with interest rates at historic lows, it will generate more growth, higher incomes, a stronger economy, and our nation’s finances will be in a stronger position,” Biden said.
Biden’s speech today marked an important shift in his tone about bipartisanship when it comes to providing coronavirus relief at a time when thousands of Americans are still dying from the virus every day and hospitals struggle to handle patient loads.
Earlier this week, the president met with a group of Republican senators who had proposed a $600bn relief bill, much smaller than Biden’s plan. Biden said he was open to the senators’ ideas, but the White House acknowledged the president made clear in the meeting that he considered the Republican package to be too small to address the country’s financial needs right now.
Biden, a longtime senator who based his presidential campaign around the idea that he could work with Republicans to achieve bipartisan compromise, is now saying Democrats are willing to go it alone on coronavirus relief.
“What Republicans have proposed is either to do nothing or not enough,” Biden said. “All of the sudden, many of them have rediscovered fiscal restraint and concern for the deficits. Don’t kid yourself, this approach will come with a cost: more pain for more people for longer than it has to be.”
Larry Summers, a former economic adviser to Barack Obama, has warned that Biden might be spending too much. The Republican representative Michael Burgess said Congress should wait until all of the previous $4tn in pandemic relief had been spent. He said $1tn had yet to go out the door.
“Why is it suddenly so urgent that we pass another $2tn bill?” Burgess demanded.
But Nancy Pelosi predicted the final Covid-19 relief legislation could pass Congress before 15 March, when special unemployment benefits that were added during the pandemic expire. In a letter to her fellow Democratic caucus members, the House speaker celebrated the Senate’s passage of the budget resolution early on Friday morning.
“As we all know, a budget is a statement of our values. Our work to crush the coronavirus and deliver relief to the American people is urgent and of the highest priority. With this budget resolution, we have taken a giant step to save lives and livelihoods,” Pelosi said in the letter.
Biden’s announcement comes amid more worrying signs about the jobs market. On Friday the labor department announced the US had added an anemic 49,000 new jobs in December. The US added an average of 176,000 jobs a month in 2019, before the pandemic hit the US.
The latest numbers did show growth after job losses in December. The revised figures for the last month of 2020 showed 227,000 jobs had been lost, up from an initial estimate of 140,000.
Officially, about 10 million people are now out of work but the Economics Policy Institute calculates that, in fact, 25.5 million workers – 15% of the workforce – are “either unemployed, otherwise out of work due to the pandemic, or employed but experiencing a drop in hours and pay”, according to a report released on Friday.
The head of the International Monetary Fund on Friday warned that the US faced a possible “dangerous wave” of bankruptcies and unemployment if it did not maintain fiscal support until the coronavirus health crisis ended.
“There is still that danger that if support is not sustained until we have a durable exit from the health crisis, there could be a dangerous wave of bankruptcies and unemployment,” said the IMF’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva.
Biden’s proposed budget also brought test votes on several Democratic priorities, including a $15 minimum wage. The Senate by voice vote adopted an amendment from Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, opposed to raising the wage during the pandemic. Ernst said a wage hike at this time would be “devastating” for small businesses.
None of the amendments to the budget are binding on Democrats as they draft their Covid plan, but passage of a wage increase could prove difficult. Even if a $15 wage can get past procedural challenges in the final bill, passage will require the support from every Democrat in the 50-50 Senate, which could be a tall order.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a vocal proponent of the wage increase, vowed to press ahead. “We need to end the crisis of starvation wages,” he said.