Biden to unveil emergency coronavirus plan, with major focus on vaccines

The measure will be narrowly tailored in an effort to garner GOP support, according to multiple people briefed on its contents, with an overall price tag below $2 trillion. It will be followed by a broader recovery plan with more expansive Democratic priorities, but after campaigning as a bipartisan dealmaker, Biden wants to give Republicans the opportunity to get behind his first legislative effort as president.

The relief package, to be officially unveiled in a Biden speech scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Eastern time Thursday night, comes at a critical time for the nation. More than 4,200 people in the United States died of the coronavirus on Tuesday, a new daily-record high. Also, the economic recovery appears to be backsliding, with jobless claims spiking to a new high since August, as nearly a million people filed for unemployment last week.

It also comes six days before his inauguration, and a day after the House of Representatives impeached President Trump, highlighting Biden’s challenge of trying to get his top agenda item passed even as the Senate is likely to be enmeshed in an impeachment trial. Biden addressed that challenge in a statement following the impeachment vote.

“This nation also remains in the grip of a deadly virus and a reeling economy,” Biden said. “I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation.

“Too many of our fellow Americans have suffered for too long over the past year to delay this urgent work,” Biden said, citing the need to get the vaccination program on track and address the economy’s deterioration.

Coronavirus vaccinations continue to lag behind the government’s goals, and Biden announced last week that he plans to release nearly all available doses of the vaccine upon taking office.

Building on that promise, Biden is expected to pledge billions of dollars Thursday to underwrite a nationwide vaccination effort, including boosting vaccine production and delivery, creating public awareness campaigns, and providing for emergency hiring in the public health sector, among other provisions, according to people briefed on his plans.

“There’s a real understanding of the crisis moment that we find ourselves in, and an openness to working to try to address it,” Brian Deese, incoming director of the White House National Economic Council, said at a Reuters event this week. “So that’s our intention, is to work on a set of ideas that Democrats and Republicans can support.”

As The Washington Post has previously reported, Biden’s short-term relief plan will also include an expansion of a key child tax credit, $2,000 stimulus payments for individuals and an extension of enhanced unemployment insurance through September. Those unemployment benefits are set to expire in mid-March, creating a deadline for congressional action.

The package is also expected to include as much as $100 billion to help schools reopen safely. It will likely include provisions to address the hunger crisis that has overwhelmed food banks around the nation, as millions of unemployed Americans struggle to buy basic staples.

Congress has already devoted some $4 trillion to fighting the pandemic and its economic fallout, including a $900 billion package Trump signed in December. But Biden and his advisers have repeatedly described that package as unfinished business they need to build on.

“We need an immediate rescue package that finishes the work that Congress took an important step on in December, but left a lot of work undone,” Deese said in his remarks earlier this week.

The legislation passed in December included $600 payments to individuals. Biden’s proposal is expected to call for an additional $1,400 — bringing the total to $2,000, which is a figure widely backed by congressional Democrats as well as a number of Republicans, including Trump.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called on Biden this week to press for $2,000 payments immediately upon taking office, saying such a move would help “to heal our deeply divided nation.”

Biden’s approach is already exposing divisions among Democrats, some of whom are itching to move immediately to pass aggressive and costly legislation without Republican votes now that they control both chambers of Congress — albeit by exceedingly narrow margins. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who will chair the Budget Committee, has said he is working to put together a massive stimulus bill that could pass under special budget rules with a simple majority vote in the Senate, instead of the 60-vote margin normally required.

Biden, however, wants to try for a bipartisan majority on his first bill. Democratic aides say that if Republicans do not appear willing to cooperate, they can shift gears quickly and move to “budget reconciliation,” the procedure that would allow them to pass legislation without GOP votes. That was the process Republicans used to pass their big tax cut bill after Trump took office and that President Barack Obama used for the Affordable Care Act.

The Senate will be divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats in the new Congress, giving Democrats control of the chamber because Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris will have the tie-breaking vote. Democrats’ 222-211 majority in the House is the narrowest for either party in years.

As Biden developed his initial plans, incoming Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged him to consider a higher price tag than what he was originally eyeing, according to a person familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the exchange.

Laura Meckler contributed to this report.

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