With Congress still deeply polarized after the departure of former President Donald Trump and dangerous variants of the coronavirus circulating in the United States, the president on Friday demonstrated a new sense of urgency by adopting his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 aid package – even if he cannot bring Republicans with him.
During a meeting in the Oval Office with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the president warned of the “cost of inaction,” pointing to the alarming job losses, the hunger that 30 million Americans face every day, and the possibility that “an entire cohort of children” could face “lower lifetime incomes because they are denied another semester of school.”
“We have to act now, we don’t have time to procrastinate,” Biden said.
He made this point less than two hours later on his way to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, when a reporter asked him if he was willing to achieve his goals with reconciliation, a cryptic procedural tactic that would have allowed Democrats to pass a discharge bill on a party line.
“I support approving Covid aid with Republican support if we can get it,” Biden said. “But the Covid aid has to pass. There are no ifs, buts, ands or buts”.
Biden has been consistent in his efforts to cross the aisle, but he has made it clear that he has no intention of waiting indefinitely before moving his agenda forward. Government officials are expected to continue working with Republican senators this weekend and next week, and Biden has personally contacted more moderate GOP senators such as Susan Collins of Maine and Rob Portman of Ohio.
But his team is also increasingly defending the American people as the administration faces opposition from the GOP over the size and scope of the bill. For all the protests at the White House on Friday, the main message was clear and directly addressed to the American people: their daily lives will not change without a substantial aid program to stimulate the economy and give schools and health care facilities the resources they need to speed up vaccinations.
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The belief that a wider audience could be an effective tool as frustration grows over the slow pace of immunization and the anemic U.S. economy, which could lead Democrats and some Republicans to embrace the idea.
It is no coincidence that Vice President Kamala Harris appeared this week before the court of such moderate Democratic senators as Kirsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia to urge the fastest possible approval of Biden’s proposal. Speaking to editors and executives of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the West Virginia Herald-Dispatch, Harris said lives are at stake.
“If we don’t pass this bill, we truly believe that more people will die who shouldn’t, more people will lose their jobs who shouldn’t, and more children will miss important school days,” Harris told her audience in her home state of Manchin, according to a report in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
“We need to act now.
The same sense of urgency was evident in comments made by Biden’s coronavirus advisers during his press briefing, by Yellen just before his report to the president on the economy, and by White House press secretary Jen Psaki on stage in the White House press room on Friday.
Referring to the current threats the virus poses to economic recovery, the millions of children deprived of personal education, and the unpredictability of the virus itself through the prism of government scientists, all argued that Biden’s proposal would return life to normal.
At a briefing by the White House Covid Response Team – at which Dr. Rochelle Walenski, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor, warned of the dangers of new virus variants from countries such as South Africa and Brazil – both stressed the importance of accelerating the pace of immunization, a key objective of Biden’s legislative package.
Now that it is clear that the “mutant evolution” will continue in the United States, Fauci said Friday, the government and vaccine manufacturers must become “more agile” and “more flexible” to produce versions of vaccines that are resistant to mutations.
He said it is likely that some mutations in the virus, such as the variant found in Britain, could become more dominant in that country in March or early April, and stressed the need to step up the pace to vaccinate as many Americans as possible before that date. “The basic principle of vaccinating people as quickly and effectively as possible will always be the best way to prevent the development of a mutant,” he said. “Because if you do that, you prevent replication, and replication is necessary for mutation.”
Noting that reopening schools remains a top priority for the government, along with millions of parents across America, Mr. Walenski argued that an “accumulation of data” has shown that when proper precautions are taken, such as taping, seclusion and ventilation, the school environment does not lead to the rapid spread of the virus.
“But we recognize that many communities do not have the capacity to do everything that needs to be done,” she said, referring to impoverished school districts that have not been able to reduce student density and implement these safety measures. “That is why it is critical that the leadership, tools and resources provided by the national Covid 19 response strategy and the American stimulus package be made available to communities,” she said, referring to Biden’s proposed legislation.
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Before meeting with Biden, Yellen updated reporters on the latest economic data, noting that more than a million people applied for unemployment insurance last week alone – “far more than in the worst week of the Great Recession,” she said.
“Economists agree that unless more help comes, many more people will lose their small businesses, their homes and their ability to feed their families. And we need to help these people before the virus is brought under control,” Yellen said. “The president is absolutely right: the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of action, and the cost of large-scale action. We must act now, and the benefits of acting now and acting on a large scale will far outweigh the long-term costs.”
During her briefing, Ms. Psaki indicated that the president will take “creative steps” in the coming weeks to build support for her proposal. These include more on-the-ground interviews, such as the one Harris conducted this week, and engaging state and local leaders in efforts to build consensus.
“Like us, he understands very well how important it is to talk directly to the American people about the components of this package, whether it’s funding the opening of schools or vaccinating Americans or just making sure people know they can put food on the table,” Psaki said.
And by pressing this case, the government no doubt hopes to change the minds of some key legislators.