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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Opinion | The press is less patient than the administration on covid relief

The press is less patient than the administration on covid relief

National Economic Council Director Brian Deese speaks during a briefing at the White House on Friday.

"The Biden administration had not yet completed two full work days (nor had the Senate) when the press corps on Friday began hounding press secretary Jen Psaki and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese. What was the deadline for negotiations with Congress on the economic rescue plan? How soon would the administration turn to reconciliation, which would require only 51 votes to pass? It is a good thing the press corps does not run the legislative affairs office, because journalists do not seem to comprehend how these things work.

The public, knee-jerk reaction of Republicans — “We just spent $900 billion so we should wait and see” — is hardly the final word on the subject. Biden administration figures are just beginning to make their case to lawmakers.

That case for a new rescue starts with the unpleasant reality that the economy is in a precarious position, still short 10 million jobs since the onset of the pandemic. It is also critical to keep in mind that the December 2020 dealessentially backfilled needs that accumulated over the prior six months — months when the Senate was stalling on making any deal. The Biden rescue package is money for future needs, for example, for testing and vaccinations under the covid plan the new administration rolled out last week. As one senior official put it, that plan is “not self-executing.” It requires a funding source.

A wait-and-see attitude about passing a new package ignores urgent demands. If we wait to expand testing and vaccinations, more people will die. If we delay money to reopen schools, it will come too late for the remainder of the regular school year and for summer instruction.

According to a source close to the negotiations, most lawmakers favor testing, vaccinations and reopening schools. In the administration’s covid-19 fact sheet, the Biden team explains:

President-elect Biden is calling on Congress to provide the $160 billion in funding necessary to save American lives and execute on his plan to mount a national vaccination program, expand testing, mobilize a public health jobs program, and take other necessary steps to build capacity to fight the virus. He is also calling on Congress to ensure our schools have everything they need to safely reopen and to provide emergency paid leave so people can stay home when needed to help contain the spread of the virus. Altogether, this would put over $400 billion toward these critical measures for addressing COVID-19.

Presented with that part of the package, many Republicans will agree that they need to spend the $400 billion. If administration negotiators can get lawmakers to move beyond generalizations and go item-by-item, lawmakers might find much to like.

If, for example, you are going to have a serious program to contain the virus until people can get vaccinated, it makes no sense to cut off emergency paid sick leave. Without it, hourly employees will keep showing up at work, only to infect their co-workers, transit workers and the general public. Likewise, if you want to keep people working, they are going to need to get to their jobs. However, without an infusion of funds, many public transit systems will lay off workers and/or cut services.

If Republicans do not want to take Biden negotiators’ word for it, they might talk to Kevin Hassett, the former administration’s chief of the Council of Economic Advisers, who warned on Friday, “There are so many businesses treading water, barely hanging on. Now they are getting hit by another shock. You could end up in a negative spiral for the economy.” He reminded Republicans, “We made it through last year without a total, utter collapse of GDP because of extremely aggressive stimulus.” The Biden team might consider sending him up to the Hill.

Certainly, there are parts of the deal, such as the $15 minimum wage, that arguably belong in a recovery package rather than an emergency rescue package. The Biden team is experienced enough to know there will be some items that do not fly. However, it is equally true that Republicans are not going to want to take the blame for allowing the pandemic to spread unchecked or refusing to open schools. The parameters of a final deal will not include everything the administration wants, but I strongly suspect the Biden team will get something from Republican lawmakers. And if not, there is plenty of time to consider reconciliation. At present, the haggling and sausage-making have just begun."

Opinion | The press is less patient than the administration on covid relief

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