Biden pushes Congress to go big on COVID relief: 'A lot of folks are losing hope'

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer
·5 min read

President Biden reiterated his commitment to go big with COVID-19 relief as the American Rescue Plan began moving through Congress along party lines.

“I know some in Congress think we’ve already done enough to deal with the crisis in the country,” Biden said during a White House address Friday to promote his $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan. “Others think that things are getting better and we can afford to sit back, 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, staring at the ceiling tonight and wondering, ‘What am I going to do tomorrow?’

“Suicides are up,” Biden continued. “Mental health needs are increasing. Violence against women and children is increasing. A lot of folks are losing hope and 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, and I’m going to act fast.”

Early Friday morning, the Senate moved forward with the reconciliation process that would allow it to pass a recovery package without Republican support, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote. Biden spoke hours after the release of the January employment report, which showed an overall dip in unemployment to 6.3 percent, but stagnating growth in new jobs. White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the numbers “disappointing.”

The White House’s proposal includes direct stimulus checks and expanded unemployment insurance along with funding for state and local governments, COVID-19 vaccinations and schools. Biden has also sought to increase the minimum wage, but prospects for passage for that provision remain in question. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll this week showed majority support for the president’s plan.

Biden said he hoped that his plan would attract Republican support but vowed that he would not slow down his efforts to pass it or shrink its size. Citing the lessons he said the nation learned from the 2008 financial crisis and the recovery package passed under then-President Barack Obama, Biden said history had shown that a robust package was needed now.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the state of the U.S. economy and the need to pass coronavirus disease (COVID-19) aid legislation during a speech in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 5, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Biden at the White House on Friday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

“I’d like to be doing it with the support of Republicans. I’ve met with Republicans. There’s some really fine people who want to get something done, but they’re just not willing to go as far as I think we have to go,” Biden said, adding, “What Republicans have proposed is to either do nothing, or not enough. All of a sudden, many of them have rediscovered fiscal restraint or concerns for the deficit. Don’t kid yourself: This approach will come with a cost. More pain for more people for longer than it has to be.

“The way I see it the biggest risk is not going too big, it’s if we go too small,” Biden continued. “We’ve been here before. When this nation hit the Great Recession that Barack and I inherited in 2009, I was asked to lead the effort on the economic recovery act to get it passed. It was a big recovery package, roughly $800 billion. I did everything I could to get it passed, including getting three Republicans to change their votes and vote for it. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t quite big enough; it stemmed the crisis but the recovery could have been faster and even bigger. Today we need an answer that meets the challenge of this crisis, not one that falls short.”

On Friday morning, Politico reported that the White House had bristled at an op-ed written by former Treasury Secretary and Obama economic adviser Larry Summers, who advocated for a smaller stimulus package in 2009. Summers wrote in the Washington Post Thursday that there was a danger in going too big with the next relief bill, but Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, said on CNN Friday morning that Summers was “wrong in a pretty profound way” and disputed the op-ed during Friday’s White House press briefing. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about the op-ed following a meeting between Biden and House Democrats, to which she replied, “We didn’t talk about Larry Summers.”

One issue still being worked out is who will be eligible for the next round of stimulus checks. In packages passed by Congress under Trump, full payments went to any American who made under $75,000 on their most recent tax return, but there have been discussions to lower that threshold to $50,000 in order to reduce the total cost of Biden’s plan. House Majority Whip James Clyburn said Friday following the meeting with Biden that they were making sure there was no “dialing back” on the $1,400 stimulus payments but that limiting recipients was being discussed.

President Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, right, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, seated second left, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Or., seated left, and Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., foreground, in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Whip James Clyburn and other lawmakers in the Oval Office on Friday. (Alex Brandon/AP)

“I’m also getting a little bit of pushback from people to make sure we target what we’re doing and we’re all for that,” Clyburn said. “We believe it should go to the people who need it most. We are there; we just can’t get it reported that we are there.”

Many have raised concerns that targeting payments based on 2019 income tax records could hurt Americans who’ve lost their jobs since the last filing. A spokesperson for the Senate Finance Committee told Yahoo News that eligibility would depend on the timing of the final vote and each individual’s tax filing, saying, “If you file your taxes by the time a relief bill is passed, the IRS would use your 2020 income — not your 2019 income — when sending relief payments.”

On Friday, a bipartisan proposal from two House members was put forward to maintain the income thresholds at $75,000 per American. Biden reiterated the check amount would not decrease, noting during his address, “I’m not cutting the size of the checks. They’re going to be $1,400. Period.”