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Biden Plans $1.9 Trillion Coronavirus Rescue Program

Money would go to hiring health workers, raising unemployment benefits and support for states.

United States Capitol
Workers drape a flag from the facade of the United States Capitol in Washington DC for Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, January 9 (Victoria Pickering)

Joe Biden is planning to ask Congress for $1.9 trillion in the first weeks of his presidency to cope with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

Matthew Yglesias and Punchbowl News, a new Capitol Hill-focused newsletter, have the details:

  • $400 billion for health, including $50 billion for testing, $30 billion for protective gear and $20 billion for vaccinations.
  • Hire 100,000 public health workers.
  • A mandatory paid sick leave program.
  • $1,400 cheques to all Americans on top of the $600 cheques sent in December.
  • Extend federal unemployment benefits at $400 per week.
  • Extend the eviction moratorium.
  • $30 billion in rental assistance.
  • Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
  • Raise the child tax credit to as much $3,600 per year for families with young children.
  • $350 billion in financial relief for local, tribal and state governments.

Priorities

A minimum wage increase would be permanent. I assume the hope is that higher unemployment benefits and child tax credits would be as well.

Unemployment benefits are managed by the states and not enough to live on everywhere. Before the pandemic, Republican-governed states in the South capped benefits at as little as $235 per week. Democratic-ruled states tend to be more generous, with Massachusetts and Washington paying unemployed residents as much as $823 and $790 per week, respectively.

Raising the minimum wage and expanding child tax credits are two policies I argued Biden should prioritize, so I’m happy to see him do just that.

Raising the minimum wage will go a long to ensuring no American needs to work two jobs to make ends meet.

Parents commonly spend between $15,000 and $26,000 per year to have someone take care of their kids. That is an enormous expense for especially low-income families, but many don’t have a choice. One in four mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth, because they can’t afford not to.

Will it pass?

If enough Republicans support it, yes. If not, Democrats would need to get rid of the Senate filibuster.

Democrats wanted to send $2,000 cheques to all Americans in December but settled for $600, because it was the most Republicans, who at the time held the majority in the Senate, would accept.

Senate control will be split fifty-fifty when Biden takes office, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast the deciding vote.

But Republicans could decide to care about the deficit again, after ignoring it for the whole of Donald Trump’s presidency, and filibuster a Democratic rescue bill. To break a filibuster, Democrats would need sixty votes.

The only way to circumvent a filibuster is to pass the rescue plan through so-called budget reconciliation; a process that was designed to iron out differences in spending bills from the House and Senate, but which has become commonplace to pass all spending-related legislation. Democrats used budget reconciliation to pass elements of Obamacare in 2010.

The trouble with reconciliation is that non-spending-related proposals, such as the eviction moratorium, would need to be taken out.

Punchbowl reports Biden would prefer to shy away from reconciliation anyway. This, then, could become the first test of Republicans’ willingness to work with the new administration. Do they repeat the obstruct-everything tactics of the Obama era, when they transformed the filibuster from seldom-used tool into standard operating procedure? Or do they attempt to find a middle ground?

My view is Republicans are unlikely to see the light and hopes of bipartisanship are unrealistic — but I hope I’m wrong. I would much rather see center-right Republicans team up with center-left Democrats than Biden beholden to the most left-wing members of his party.

If I’m right, and Republicans try to block a desperately needed rescue plan for political gain, the filibuster will have to go.

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