Congress recently approved a $900 billion federal rescue package after a stretch of tumultuous negotiations over the past three weeks. (The package has yet to be signed by President Donald Trump.) The legislation, though, was preceded by months of political dysfunction set against the backdrop of a raging pandemic and economic calamity for millions of Americans.
Yet President-elect Joe Biden is betting he can break through the gridlock and usher in a new era of compromise.
Less than 24 hours after Congress approved an emergency spending plan, he is signaling his intent to corral both parties to get behind another agreement to prop up a slowing economy.
In a speech on Tuesday, Biden started laying out his priorities for another rescue package after he is sworn in on January 20. He warned the nation's "darkest days" in its battle against the pandemic still lay ahead and called the $900 billion piece of legislation "a down payment."
"The things that are left to deal with from people needing unemployment insurance to the ability to have access for healthcare, getting people treatment for free — all of that is something the public is not going to stand for us not doing," he said.
Measures that he indicated support for include:
- Stimulus checks of an undetermined amount
- Aid to state and local governments
- Funds for virus testing and vaccine distribution
- Extension of enhanced unemployment insurance
Biden also took the opportunity to credit Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — a former rival in the 2020 Democratic primary — along with Senate Republicans for including the $600 stimulus checks in the relief legislation.
"I think you're seeing that there is a clear understanding these issues go beyond any ideology. People are desperately hurting," he said. "The Republicans are hurting as badly as Democrats."
Biden's remarks reflect the urgency among Democrats as the pandemic continues exacting a devastating toll on communities and businesses. Both Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emphasized after announcing a long-awaited stimulus deal they would press for more aid as soon as Biden is inaugurated.
But the drive to secure another aid package is all but guaranteed to collide with Senate Republicans, who may not be inclined to back a large round of emergency spending. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, though, acknowledged last week more negotiations could take place with the incoming Biden White House.
"We all know the new administration will be asking for yet another package," McConnell said. "It's not like we won't have another opportunity to debate the merits of liability reform and of state and local government in the very near future."
McConnell has indicated he wants a liability shield to guard businesses from pandemic-related lawsuits while Democrats want to clinch more aid for cash-strapped state and local governments. But more talks may not produce the kind of ambitious spending that Democrats want.
Some Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida have stepped up their calls to rein in the swelling budget deficit in recent months.
Lawmakers approved a record-breaking $3.3 trillion in emergency spending this year to contain the pandemic and soften the blow for ailing businesses and struggling Americans. The bulk of it came from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in March, which sent $1,200 checks to millions of Americans and provided small business aid among other measures.
Many economists say the $900 billion relief legislation only sets up a short bridge into early next year when vaccines are expected to reach a small slice of the public. They argue more federal aid is needed.
"We've done a lot. But there is a lot more to do," Ernie Tedeschi, a policy economist at Evercore ISI, tweeted recently. "The new bill helps. But we are far from out of the woods yet and there are still risks and pitfalls."
Many new aid provisions will end only several months into 2021. For example, a chunk of enhanced unemployment benefits expires in mid-March.
Whether Republicans support Biden's drive for more federal aid rests on the Biden administration's efforts to contain the pandemic and overall health of the economy.
"If we address the critical needs right now and things improve next year as the vaccine gets out there and the economy starts to pick up again, you know, then there's maybe less of a need," Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said last week.