Biden wants to go big, fast and alone on COVID relief

·4 min read

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden laid out the case Friday for moving fast and without Republicans, if necessary, to pass $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief, armed with new signs of economic strain brought on by the continuing pandemic.

The stakes for the county and economy were amplified on Friday morning, shortly after Senate Democrats cast a decisive vote to muscle the plan through the chamber without Republican support, a step toward final approval next month. January's jobs report showed that hiring had stalled to a pace that could hinder a return to full employment for several years—with 406,000 people choosing to leave the labour force as deaths from the pandemic surged.

“A lot of folks are losing hope,” Biden said in a speech at the White House. “I believe the American people are looking right now to their government for help, to do our job, to not let them down. So I'm going to act. I'm going to act fast. I'd like to be doing it with the support of Republicans ... they’re just not willing to go as far as I think we have to go."

The speech solidified a shift from a president who entered the White House pledging bipartisanship, but also persuaded that going with the slimmed-down $618 billion Republican plan would prolong the economic pain of those who have suffered job losses because of a failure to stop the pandemic.

His remarks came a few hours after the Senate early Friday approving a budgetary measure that would let Democrats pass the plan without Republicans. Vice-President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, her first.

Senate Democrats applauded after Harris announced the 51-50 vote at around 5:30 a.m. The action came after a grueling all-night session, where senators voted on amendments that could define the contours of the eventual COVID-19 aid bill.

The budget now returns to the House, where it will likely be approved again Friday to reflect the changes made by the Senate. The measure can then work its way through committees so that additional relief can be finalized by mid-March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires. It’s an aggressive timeline that will test the ability of the new administration and Congress to deliver.

The push for stimulus comes amid new signs of a weakening U.S. economy. Employers added just 49,000 jobs in January, after cutting 227,000 jobs in December, the Labor Department said Friday. Restaurants, retailers, manufacturers and even the health care sector shed workers last month, meaning that private employers accounted for a meagre gain of 6,000 jobs last month.

“At that rate, it’s going to take 10 years until we hit full employment," Biden said at an Oval Office meeting with House Democrats earlier Friday. "That’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact.”

The unemployment rate fell to 6.3% from 6.7%, but there was a decline in the number of people who were either working or looking for a job in a sign that some people are dropping out of the labour force. The U.S. economy is 9.9 million jobs shy of its pre-pandemic level.

Biden, who has been meeting with lawmakers in recent days to discuss the package, welcomed the leaders of House committees who will be assembling the bill under the budget process known as “reconciliation.”

Biden also plans to make remarks Friday on the economy as he keeps up the pressure on Congress to “act big” on his relief package.

Money for vaccine distributions, direct payments to households, school reopenings and business aid are at stake.

The Senate passed an amendment 99-1 that would prevent the $1,400 in direct checks in Biden's proposal from going to “upper-income taxpayers.” But the measure, led by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, is ultimately symbolic and nonbinding and does not specify at what level a person qualifies as upper income.

The marathon Senate session brought test votes on several Democratic priorities, including a $15 minimum wage. The Senate by voice vote adopted an amendment from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, 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.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a vocal proponent of the wage increase, vowed to press ahead. “We need to end the crisis of starvation wages,” he said.

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Associated Press write Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

Josh Boak, The Associated Press