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Biden preps coronavirus ‘rescue’ plan, with ‘recovery’ bill to follow

Democratic leaders face 60-vote Senate hurdle, with Republicans wary of additional deficit spending

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer have to navigate slim majorities to pass another aid package.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer have to navigate slim majorities to pass another aid package. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President-elect Joe Biden has settled on a two-step strategy for moving his policy agenda through Congress this year, beginning with a COVID-19 rescue package he’ll unveil Thursday night and continuing later this year with what’s likely to be a more partisan economic recovery measure.

Biden is hoping to gain Republican support for what Democrats are billing their rescue plan, which is aimed at addressing the immediate effects of the pandemic and its associated economic impacts. The plan has components to address vaccine distribution, aid to households and assistance to communities, according to several people familiar with the plan who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Biden’s transition team announced Wednesday that Biden will deliver remarks from Wilmington, Del., at 7:15 p.m. Thursday to outline his rescue package “to fund vaccinations and provide immediate, direct relief to working families and communities bearing the brunt of this crisis and call on both parties in Congress to move his proposals quickly.”

The health care portion of the package includes funding for distribution of the vaccines as well as hiring additional health care workers to administer the vaccines and an education campaign to persuade people that they are safe and effective. There would also be more money for COVID-19 testing, according to sources.

The household aid portion of the plan includes the added $1,400 tax rebate checks Biden has promised — on top of $600 payments enacted late last year — as well as supercharged unemployment insurance benefits, food assistance, aid to renters, child care subsidies and an extended eviction moratorium.

Money for small businesses, state and local governments, public transit agencies, local school systems and more are contained in the aid to communities component of the plan.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the price tag would be, but Biden last week said it could be in the “trillions of dollars.”

Ahead of the November elections, Democrats in the House and Senate discussed using the budget reconciliation process twice this year in order to pass legislation with filibuster-proof majorities if Democrats won control of Congress and the White House.

That would require both chambers to first adopt a fiscal 2021 budget resolution containing reconciliation instructions early in the year and to follow it up with a fiscal 2022 budget resolution, with additional reconciliation directives, later in the year. Reconciliation allows tax- and budget-related legislation to pass with a simple majority in the Senate rather than the usual 60 votes, making it possible to pass legislation without the support of the minority.

‘Good faith effort’

Instead, Biden will seek to win Republican backing to pass the rescue plan without the use of reconciliation. That would require 60 votes in the 50-50 Senate. Sources said he will make an initial “good faith effort” to win bipartisan support for the package, which has been written with that goal in mind.

Coming so soon on the heels of last month’s $900 billion relief package, it could be difficult to garner support from enough Senate Republicans to get over the 60-vote threshold. Some Democrats are skeptical that Republicans will cooperate, and the option of using reconciliation on the first package is being kept in reserve.

The downside of using reconciliation for the rescue plan is that it would take longer, be more complicated and limiting.

Democrats in the House and Senate would have to find common ground on a fiscal 2021 budget resolution, a challenge given different priorities among competing factions of liberals and moderates in both chambers.

Moreover, reconciliation in the Senate is constrained by the Byrd rule, a law which prevent extraneous items from being included reconciliation including those that don’t have a deficit impact or increase long-term deficits.

There are also procedural problems and potential Byrd rule flaws with including discretionary spending in reconciliation bills. Much of the spending that is envisioned in Biden’s plan, such as vaccine distribution, rental housing aid and relief for states and localities, is discretionary, which is under the purview of the Appropriations committees.

Democratic leaders have been largely mum on the prospect of using two rounds of reconciliation since Democrats gained control of the Senate after the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs.

Biden’s second step — a longer-term recovery package — would be taken up later in the year. Sources said Democrats envision using reconciliation to pass that broader economic package that would include infrastructure development, clean energy subsidies and other measures aimed at job creation, possibly paired with tax increases on corporations and wealthier households.

Infrastructure spending also faces some potential Byrd rule issues, however, including the fact that highway and aviation trust fund authorizations do not “score” as direct spending that would be allowed under reconciliation and could also increase long-term deficits.