WASHINGTON – As senators launched an all-night session Thursday to lay groundwork for President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the White House is increasingly focused on selling the plan directly to voters.
Biden's administration has done 60-plus interviews with national TV and radio shows. There have been spots on local TV news and briefings last week with more than 50 groups, including General Motors, Meals on Wheels America and Planned Parenthood. One of the main goals is to stop people from getting bogged down in the tangle of partisan deal-making and convince them that every penny of the “go big” package is needed.
“The public is not getting caught up in process — what they want is results,” said Cedric Richmond, the White House director of public engagement. “People these days are not worried about the inside-the-Beltway terminology. They’re looking at who’s doing what to help.”
The president told Democratic lawmakers that he views the package's proposal for $1,400 direct payments to individuals as a foundational promise to voters. It represents a strategic bet by the White House that voters will suspend their partisan beliefs to evaluate the plan and support its massive scope.
Biden has suggested he may be flexible on the $1.9 trillion topline figure for the plan and on ways to more narrowly target who gets direct payments. But the $1,400 amount — on top of $600 in payments approved in December — appears to be nonnegotiable.
"I’m not going to start my administration by breaking a promise to the American people,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats were on track Thursday to approve a budget resolution that will pave the way for eventually passing the aid package on a party-line vote by Democrats, with or without bipartisan support from Republicans.
Senators were poised for an all-night session to consider amendments that could define the contours of the eventual bill. One from Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, would prevent “upper-income” taxpayers from qualifying for Biden’s proposed $1,400 direct payments and it passed 99-1. No income level was specified.
Vice President Kamala Harris was in attendance, able to cast a tie-breaking vote, if needed, in the chamber that is evenly divided 50-50. A White House aide said the goal is to provide an open and bipartisan debate.
The goal is approval by March deadlines for expiring jobless benefits and other aid.
The Biden package comes after $4 trillion in rescue spending that cushioned the financial blow from the pandemic but did little to stop the disease. It includes politically divisive provisions such as a $15 hourly minimum wage and $350 billion in aid for state and local governments. Ten Republican senators countered with a $618 billion package, one-third of what Biden is offering.
Biden entered the presidency with Americans generally hopeful about his ability to fight the pandemic and guide the economy. About three-quarters said they have at least some confidence in his ability to handle the coronavirus, while roughly two-thirds had at least some confidence in his economic leadership, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Most Americans still see the need for government stimulus. A survey released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University found 68% of U.S. adults support Biden’s stimulus package and 24% oppose it. But Republicans are divided on the measure, with 47% opposed and 37% favoring it. Nearly all Democrats backed the plan.
Based on his interactions, Richmond sees these elements of the package as the most popular: the direct payments, the $160 billion for widespread vaccinations, food and nutrition assistance for struggling Americans, and the push to halve the child poverty rate through tax credits and other benefits.
But even Republicans who are supportive of some kind of aid are telling their voters Biden's plan is too expensive — and it's possible people could be turned off if they think stimulus dollars are being wasted.
The group of GOP senators behind the counterproposal told Biden in a letter Thursday that they had significant questions about the “size and scope” of his plan given how much Congress already has allocated and the more than $60 billion in emergency assistance they said states and districts have yet to spend on public schools.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told KUTV in Salt Lake City that aid to state and local governments, a particular sticking point for Republicans, should be based on “actual need, as opposed to a simple blanket payment of billions of dollars, which in many cases would represent a windfall." But Romney also stepped toward bipartisanship Thursday by proposing payments of at least $3,000 per child to families, though they would be paid for in part by cutting other government programs and tax credits that are targeted toward families.
Republicans are betting Biden will pay a price politically if he doesn't take a bipartisan tack. By contrast, Democrats hope Republicans will pay a price if voters don't see them engaging with the fullness of the crisis.
The White House can point to at least one Republican who considers Biden’s plan essential: Jeff Williams, the mayor of Arlington, Texas. Williams knows there could be a partisan backlash to supporting Biden’s plan. But, on the merits, the term-limited mayor sees no alternative.
The city is gearing up for property tax assessments, and estimates are that revenues could drop 10%, largely because commercial real estate has taken a severe hit as offices, restaurants and hotels have emptied. Williams said he believes Republicans ultimately want to help, too, even if they choke on the high price tag.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “The gist of this is that you always have those extremists that are there, but most of our Republicans have been supportive of getting fiscal assistance to cities. They can’t come up with that dollar amount.”
The United States has lost roughly 10 million jobs because of the pandemic, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that without additional aid, the jobs won't return in full until 2024. The Census Bureau estimates 1 in 8 households with children lacks sufficient food.
But the picture is also complicated. The Penn Wharton Budget Model found in a report released Wednesday that 73% of the $1,400 stimulus checks would go into savings, meaning there would be limited growth in consumer spending, which helps propel the economy.