Joe Biden has unveiled a $1.9tn coronavirus relief proposal, aimed at urgently combating the pandemic and the economic crisis it has triggered. As the US faces its deadliest stage of the pandemic, Biden described the moment as “a crisis of deep human suffering”.
The ambitious, wide-ranging plan includes $160bn to bolster vaccination and testing efforts, and other health programs and $350bn for state and local governments, as well as $1tn in relief to families, via direct payments and unemployment insurance.
“There’s no time to waste,” Biden said. “We have to act and we have to act now.”
Details of the aid package had been released by Biden’s transition team earlier on Thursday.
If adopted, the proposal would tack on $1,400 to the $600 in direct payments for individuals that Congress approved most recently. “We will finish the job of getting a total of $2,000 in relief to people who need it the most,” Biden said.
Supplemental unemployment insurance would also increase to $400 a week from $300 a week and would be extended to September.
“During this pandemic, millions of Americans, through no fault of their own, have lost the dignity and respect that comes with a job and a paycheck,” Biden said on Thursday, speaking from Wilmington, Delaware. “There is real pain overwhelming the real economy.”
Biden ran on the promise that he would deliver Americans through the coronavirus crisis, and more recently has pledged to ramp up vaccination efforts, and oversee the administering of 100m covid-19 jabs during his first 100 days.
Ahead of the president-elect’s inauguration next week, a deeply divided US is also facing an unmitigated public health crisis. More than 385,000 people have died of Covid-19. Meanwhile, weekly unemployment claims have jumped to 965,000. Before the pandemic, the figure was typically about 225,000.
With Democrats having gained an edge over Republicans in the Senate, the Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has said Biden’s Covid-19 relief package will be his top priority, even as the legislative body contends with the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.
In passing the proposal, Biden has an ally in Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and former presidential contender, who will soon be at the helm of the powerful Senate budget committee. As chair of the committee, Sanders will have control of budget reconciliation, a process that allows Congress to expedite some legislation.
The “rescue plan will begin to provide our people with much-needed support”, Sanders said.
Biden has also called on lawmakers to extend a national eviction moratorium, which expires on 31 January.
Housing advocates have been pressing Biden to extend and bolster a federal ban on evictions in recent weeks and months, and they have asked him to additionally include funds for rental assistance in relief proposals. His current plan includes $30bn in rental and utility assistance for those struggling to pay bills. Advocates are also asking Congress to cancel any rent or mortgage debt incurred during the pandemic.
The president-elect said that while “these plans won’t come cheaply”, a failure to act “will cost us dearly”.
Still, several provisions in the president-elect’s plan could face resistance, including his bid to have Congress raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. As a candidate, Biden signaled that raising the minimum wage would be a top priority. But Republicans have long opposed such a move. The Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, blocked a minimum wage increase in 2019, and Republicans filibustered a minimum wage increase effort in 2014.
So far the plan has, however, united two diametrically opposed forces – Democratic socialist Sanders and big business. The US Chamber of Commerce, an influential lobbying organization that represents business interests, praised Biden’s proposal.
“We applaud the president-elect’s focus on vaccinations and on economic sectors and families that continue to suffer as the pandemic rages on,” the group said in a statement. “We must defeat Covid before we can restore our economy.”
The proposal will be Biden’s first test of his ability to work with a divided Congress and make good on his promise to pull the country out of the coronavirus crisis.
“Come Wednesday, we begin a new chapter,” Biden said.
Trump’s leadership during the pandemic has been erratic. He backed “Operation Warp Speed” to quickly develop vaccines and treatments, but also picked fights with leading government scientists like Dr Anthony Fauci and his own appointees at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Biden has pledged to take his lead from science, and has named Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as his top medical adviser. He has tapped businessman Jeff Zients, who has a reputation for successfully tackling complex missions, to coordinate the government’s coronavirus response. He has also selected the Yale medicine professor Dr Marcella Nunez-Smith, to head an effort to ensure equity and fairness for racial and ethnic minorities in access to vaccines and treatments.
But he will need more than top-résumé talent, experts say. It is still unclear how the new administration will address the issue of vaccine hesitancy, with many Americans, including a worryingly high percentage of healthcare workers, saying they are wary of getting a shot.
Next Wednesday, when Biden will be sworn in as president, marks the first anniversary of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the United States.
The Associated Press contributed reporting