WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden said Friday he is assembling a multitrillion-dollar relief package that would boost stimulus payments for Americans to $2,000, extend unemployment insurance and send billions of dollars in aid to city and state governments, moving swiftly to address the nation’s deteriorating economic condition and the rampaging pandemic.
The package will also include billions of dollars to improve vaccine distribution and tens of millions of dollars for schools, as well as rent forbearance and assistance to small businesses, especially those in low-income communities, Biden said at a news conference in Wilmington, Del.
“We need to provide more immediate relief for families and businesses now,” Biden said.
“The price tag will be high,” he said, adding, “The overwhelming consensus among leading economists left, right and center is that in order to keep the economy from collapsing this year, getting much, much worse, we should be investing significant amounts of money right now.”
Biden said he would lay out the package in more detail next week. It would build on some $4 trillion in economic assistance Congress has already devoted to battling the devastating pandemic, including a $900 billion package President Donald Trump signed into law last month.
Discussions were getting underway in earnest with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, with Biden aiming to move the package to a vote as quickly as possible. But in an early sign of the challenges Biden may face in getting his agenda through Congress, even with both chambers controlled by Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., expressed skepticism Friday about the benefits of a new round of stimulus checks.
“I don’t know where in the hell $2,000 came from,” Manchin said. “I swear to God I don’t. That’s another $400 billion dollars.”
Manchin initially seemed to suggest in an interview with The Washington Post that he was “absolutely” opposed to a new round of checks. He clarified in a follow-up interview that he could potentially support more checks if they were narrow in scope and targeted for people who really need them.
Manchin also said that the first priority needed to be on getting people vaccinated, not sending out checks.
“If they can direct money and they say, ‘This will help stimulate the economy,’ hell yeah I’m for it,” Manchin said. “But basically right now, you better get them vaccinated.”
Biden has made new stimulus checks a central promise, specifically telling Georgia voters that they would be getting $2,000 payments if Democrats won Senate runoff elections in the state this week.
Democrats won those races, clinching a majority in the Senate and unified control of Washington for the first time since the start of the Obama administration. After the Georgia wins, the incoming majority leader, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also pledged that the $2,000 checks would be an early priority. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in a statement Friday that “the working class of this country was promised that they would receive a $2,000 direct payment. . . . We must keep that promise.”
Manchin is a moderate who will hold great sway in a Senate split 50 to 50 between Democrats and Republicans. With such slim margins, Biden and Schumer may not be able to lose even a single Democratic vote if they attempt to move legislation under special Senate rules that allow bills to pass with a simple majority, instead of the 60-vote margin generally required. In the event of a tie in the Senate, Kamala Harris, the incoming vice president, would cast the deciding vote.
Without united Democratic support, Biden would need to attract Republican votes for his proposal. Biden has often spoken of a desire for bipartisanship, and there may be GOP support for some elements of his plan, including the stimulus checks. However, many Republicans are certain to balk at a price tag Biden said would be “in the trillions of dollars.”
Formal discussions between congressional Democratic leaders and Biden officials on the details of the stimulus package are expected to begin in earnest in coming days. Officials stressed that conversations are preliminary and that no final decisions have been made about the timing or exact shape of the effort.
At least one leading Democratic senator will push for federal unemployment benefits to be approved at $600 a week, up from the current $300, although the position of the Biden team on that matter is not yet clear.
The local-aid component of the package may take the form of additional money for specific needs that local governments face, such as funding for education and child care, rather than direct grants to states and cities.
Biden’s push for a big new stimulus package comes amid a rapid deterioration of the economy under the strain of a third wave of the coronavirus. The economy shed 140,000 jobs in December, a steep decline just as U.S. covid-19 deaths hit an all-time high.
“Clearly, there’s a need. The new unemployment numbers are shocking,” said Jim Kessler, an executive vice president at Third Way, a centrist think tank. “State and local aid has to be part of it. There will be additional stimulus checks. And you have to make sure unemployment benefits continue as well.”
Enhanced unemployment benefits of up to $300 a week were included in the $900 billion package signed by Trump. That package also included $600 stimulus checks, so approving new $1,400 checks would bring stimulus payments to $2,000, a figure that has attracted widespread support.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pushed a stand-alone stimulus-check measure through the House last month. Biden indicated Friday, however, that he would wrap the stimulus checks into a wide-ranging package, not try to move them as a stand-alone bill.
Biden is also likely to push for a larger legislative effort later in 2021 after the initial stimulus package. That effort is expected to focus on spending trillions of dollars on infrastructure and clean-energy jobs. The former vice president additionally has pushed for significant overhauls to America’s health-care system, something that could also be wrapped into legislation later in the year.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., incoming chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview that he will push for a restoration of the $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits approved by Congress in March. Those benefits expired in the summer, although Congress last month approved an additional extension of those benefits at $300 per week. Other Senate Democrats have previously expressed internal opposition to reviving the $600-per-week benefit.
Wyden said he is in communication with Biden officials about the coming push for economic relief. He did not say whether the Biden officials will back his push for the $600 weekly benefit. He also said he is pushing for “automatic triggers” that tie the expiration of federal benefits to general economic conditions, such as the unemployment rate.
“I talked to [Biden officials] last night. I can tell you they are very much concerned about layoffs,” Wyden said. “At this point, I’m telling everybody: ‘I’m pulling out all the stops for $600.’ . . . We are going to do everything we can to put hard-hit working families on an economic footing where they can get ahead.”