(TNS) — President-elect Joe Biden will propose a $1.9 trillion plan to combat the nation’s economic and public health emergencies, raising the curtain on a new presidency built on faith in the power of the federal government to solve problems.
In a speech to the nation due to be broadcast Thursday night, Biden is expected to call for quick congressional action on his sweeping package, which will include steps to speed production and distribution of vaccines, an additional $1,400 in direct payments to individuals, expanded unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments, and an expansion of aid to families with children.
“It is a national emergency, and we need to treat it like one,’’ said a senior Biden official who described the plan in advance of the speech. “The president-elect has a comprehensive plan that will throw the full weight and resources of the federal government behind managing the crisis.”
Biden will cast the plan as an immediate response to a continuing pandemic and a worsening economic crisis in which already high unemployment rates have once again started to rise after months of declines from record levels last spring. But many of the proposals also serve as down payments toward longer-run Democratic goals, including a one-year expansion of aid to families with children, which a senior Biden aide who briefed reporters said would “cut child poverty in half” over the next year.
The effort to do both comes with a big price-tag — more than twice the $908 billion in relief Congress approved just last month. That will make it a tough sell in a narrowly divided Senate where Republicans have tremendous power to slow or block legislation even though Democrats will hold the majority.
A senior Biden official said they hoped that his speech would build public support for an ambitious plan that meets what the president-elect, who takes office Wednesday, sees as urgent national needs.
“The strategy is to make the case clearly to the American people about the immediacy of the need, and to work to try to build on the spirit of bipartisanship that helped to bring together action in December,” the official said, referring to the relief approved last month. “But that was just a down payment. And so we’re going to need to work to do more.”
The centerpiece of the plan is the effort to speed up vaccinations and expand coronavirus testing.
A major criticism of the Trump administration has been that its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been too haphazard and left too much responsibility to state and local governments, at great cost to the health and economic well being of the country. Deaths from COVID-19 are nearing 400,000 and the economy is still struggling to rebound from the blow of a protracted shutdown to slow the virus spread.
Reflecting Biden‘s view of the plan as just a first installment, officials referred to it as a “rescue” package designed to address the most urgent needs of the country, to be followed next month a “recovery” plan that will address his more ambitious goals beyond getting back to “normal.” That will include Biden’s infrastructure plan and measures to combat climate change.
All told, the opening policy act of the incoming Biden administration poses a tough test of his oft-repeated goal of building bridges to the Republican Party and bringing the spirit of bipartisanship back to Washington. He is proposing a big expenditure just as Republicans, after ignoring the run-up of deficits under Trump, have expressed increasing concern about the growth of government spending and questioned the need for more relief so soon after last month’s action.
The Biden plan included some proposals -- such as aid to state and local governments -- that Republicans had resolutely opposed in previous negotiations. It is a wish list that reflects his desire to act boldly, perhaps sensitive to complaints that the Obama-Biden administration’s 2009 economic-stimulus plan was too cautious for the crisis inherited from the Bush administration.
“The risk of doing too little at this moment is much greater than the risk of doing too much,” said the senior Biden official.
Biden’s drive for bipartisan support, if successful, would upend the experience of his recent predecessors on major economic initiatives. No Democrats voted for Trump’s 2017 tax cut. Obama’s 2009 economic relief act passed with no Republican votes in the House and just three in the Senate. Before him, President Bill Clinton in 1993 had to rely solely on Democrats to pass a deficit reduction bill that was a signature element of his presidency.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan would include $400 billion aimed at speeding the pace of vaccinations and hitting his goal of inoculating 100 million people within the first 100 days; roughly $1 trillion in payments to individuals and families, including a new round of $1,400 per-person relief checks; and about $440 billion in help for local governments and businesses.
Biden also plans to ask Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, a major goal of progressive and labor groups.
The plan includes a series of short-term measures aimed at meeting what Biden aides described as a worsening “economic crisis.”
One part of the plan — the one-year expansion in aid to low- and medium-income families with children to cut child poverty in half — would effectively create a national family allowance for the first time in the U.S.
Expanding the child tax credit and making it fully refundable “would greatly benefit the poorest kids in the United States,” reaching some 27 million children who currently don’t benefit because their families are too poor to make use of a tax credit, said Katherine Michelmore of Syracuse University, who has studied the impact of the existing program. “Over half the kids who would benefit are Black and brown children,” she said.
Although the Biden plan would expand the tax credit only for one year, Biden backed a long-term expansion during his campaign.
“That’s how we get things done,” Michelmore said. “Temporary change, and then make it permanent.”
The vaccination plan includes money for a major expansion of coronavirus testing as well as to set up community vaccination centers around the country and staff mobile units aimed at reaching people in remote communities or other hard-to-reach groups. The legislation would also ensure that all U.S. residents, including those in the country without legal status, would be able to be vaccinated free of charge.
The expanded testing is “critical to getting kids back to school” and for protecting workers, said a senior Biden official. The testing would also significantly improve the ability to detect new strains of the virus, the official said, noting that the U.S. currently ranks 43rd in the world in its capacity to do the gene sequencing needed to see if the virus is mutating.
Roughly $130 billion would be aimed at getting schools reopened nationwide. School districts could use the money to reduce class sizes, improve ventilation of school buildings, buy more protective equipment for teachers and other staff and provide summer school programs for children who have fallen behind over the past year.
The proposed new round of checks for individuals would be on top of the $600 approved by Congress in December, bringing the total to $2,000. The demand for $2,000 payments had been a major part of the Democrats’ successful campaign to win two Senate seats in Georgia in runoff elections earlier this month. The idea has also drawn support from some Republicans, including President Trump.
In addition to those payments, the plan would extend a number of income-support programs through the end of September, several of which currently are set to expire in March. In several cases, Biden would also make the existing programs more generous.
The income-support programs would include a requirement that companies provide paid sick leave for workers, with the government paying to cover wages of up to $73,000 a year. That would cover more than three-quarters of the U.S. labor force, Biden aides said.
Biden would also expand food aid, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and the Women, Infants and Children program.
The proposal would also extend additional weeks of unemployment benefits and provide a $400 per week federal supplement on top of existing state unemployment payments. Congress included a $600 federal supplement in its original coronavirus relief package in the spring, but it was strongly opposed by most Republicans who said it would encourage people to stay on unemployment rather than going back to work.
And Biden would extend the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and provide $30 billion in rental assistance to help renters and small landlords.
The family allowance plan would expand the existing child tax credit and make it fully refundable, meaning that families whose income is too low to owe taxes would get a direct check from the government. The current child tax credit is only partially refundable and effectively leaves out millions of children whose parents are extremely poor. Making the credit fully refundable would especially expand the number of Black and Latino children who benefit from it, according to studies of the existing tax credit.
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