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To Provide Unemployment Benefits And Other Needed Aid, Washington Must Pass Biden’s Relief Bill

Even as they digest the bad news that a simple minimum wage increase can’t be included in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package, Congressional Democrats are moving rapidly to pass the overall legislation.  They are doing the right thing.  A new advocacy campaign—“Countdown to Prevent Catastrophe”—says the bill must pass before March 14th to help millions of families, small businesses, and the economy.

The “Countdown” Campaign goes public today (you can link to the project here.)  Launched by three progressive organizations—Invest in America ActionTax March, and Protect Our Care—the campaign warns that extended unemployment benefits passed last summer expire in less than two weeks, on March 14.  And other critical policies need attention and funding to provide fuller relief from the pandemic and accompanying recession. 

Failing to act will cause millions to lose unemployment benefits, especially Black, Hispanic, and women workers in low-wage industries.  And lost benefits in turn will reduce consumer spending and hurt the economy while putting the health and homes of families at risk. 

Republicans have called for slowing down the legislation to explore bipartisan compromises.  But in reality, the “compromises” offered so far have almost all been dramatic reductions in proposed spending and programs. 

Led by Susan Collins (R-ME), ten Republican Senators met with President Biden in early February, proposing a $618 billion package.  That’s almost two-thirds less spending than the President’s bill.  The Republican proposal offers lower extended unemployment benefits for a shorter period of time, reduces stimulus payments from $1400 to $1000, cuts proposed school aid by $150 billion, and provides no emergency aid to state and local governments, among other cuts.  

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Not surprisingly, the Administration rejected these dramatic reductions.  After touring a Pfizer

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plant making coronavirus vaccine, President Biden asked “what would they have me cut?”  The Collins proposal shows the deep cuts some Senators propose, but even if accepted there’s no guarantee House Republicans would go along.  House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) has called the House Democratic bill “Pelosi’s Payoff to Progressives Act,” criticizing virtually every provision in it.  

So there’s little prospect of any timely compromise that would bring Republicans on board with Biden’s bill.  The president seems to have learned the lesson that came far too late to President Obama.  During the protracted negotiations on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Obama Administration worked hard to find bipartisan support and met with various Republican leaders, including Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA).  

Like most Republicans, Grassley had fiercely attacked the ACA.  Finally, in a White House meeting, Obama asked directly—if every one of the Senator’s proposed changes were accepted, would Grassley then support the legislation?  In his memoir, Obama recounts Grassley saying “I guess not, Mr. President.”

The “Countdown to Catastrophe” advocates detail the risks of any delay now.  The first program to stop would be extended unemployment insurance for millions of workers.  But not providing direct household checks in the promised amount also will cut spending and slow the recovery.  

Although coronavirus vaccinations are beginning to pick up, as Biden’s team works to overcome the lack of planning and preparation under the Trump Administration, we need much more public health funding for vaccination and testing.   Schools need substantial funding to reopen while keeping students, teachers, and staff safe, and helping kids who have fallen behind without in-person teaching.  And state and local governments continue facing severe budget problems, even if those aren’t as deep in some places as first feared.

So Congress needs to act now, meaning Democrats need to use the arcane budget reconciliation process. That process excludes some important actions, like increasing the minimum wage.  But a budget reconciliation bill can’t be filibustered, meaning Democrats can pass this vital aid without unnecessary delays.  A bipartisan bill would be great, but dedicated Republican opposition means it isn’t in the cards.  

As the “Catastrophe” advocates tell us, passing the bill now means extending unemployment benefits and staving off economic disaster for millions of workers, sending stimulus checks to struggling families, providing aid to reopen schools and keep increasing vaccinations, and helping struggling state and local governments.  So do it now—“act big,” as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin has said—and keep the economy moving forward, which benefits all of us.

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