By Jarrett Renshaw and Joseph Ax
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden urged lawmakers on Tuesday to pass a coronavirus aid package that has been stalled in Congress for months, and promised more action to reactivate the economy after he takes office next month.
At its peak over the summer, expanded federal unemployment benefits funneled some $12 billion weekly into individual bank accounts, money that propped up spending, padded savings and fueled rehiring.
But those benefits are expiring by the end of this year, prompting calls for a more extended safety net while a coronavirus vaccine is rolled out.
“Right now, the full Congress should come together and pass a robust package for relief to address these urgent needs,” Biden said as he presented his incoming administration’s economic team.
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday unveiled a $908 billion COVID-19 relief bill aimed at breaking the long deadlock between Democrats and Republicans over new emergency assistance for small businesses, unemployed people, airlines and other industries hit hard by the pandemic.
Biden said any such package passed by Congress before he takes over on Jan. 20 would be “at best just a start.”
“My transition team is already working on what I’ll put forward in the next Congress to address the multiple crises we’re facing, especially our economic and COVID crises,” Biden said at the event in Wilmington, Delaware.
He was speaking alongside his selections for senior economic roles, including his nominee for U.S. Treasury secretary, former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, who said the pandemic and economic damage it caused in the United States was “an American tragedy.”
“It’s essential that we move with urgency. Inaction will produce a self-reinforcing downturn, causing yet more devastation,” Yellen said.
The economic team’s makeup reinforces Biden’s view that a more aggressive approach to the economic recovery from the pandemic is required. The advisers have all expressed support for government stimulus to maximize employment, reduce economic inequality and help women and minorities, who have been disproportionately hurt by the downturn.
The United States is in the grip of a fresh wave of COVID-19 infections, with more than 4 million new cases and over 35,000 coronavirus-related deaths reported in November, according to a Reuters tally of official data.
The virus is likely to disrupt production at factories. Manufacturing output is still about 5% below its pre-pandemic level, according to the Fed.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Tuesday that the number of coronavirus deaths in the United States had risen to 267,302.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi were due to speak on Tuesday about both COVID-19 relief and government funding. The two have not spoken since talks on coronavirus relief broke down before the Nov. 3 election.
Other Biden picks for his economic team include Cecilia Rouse, an economist at Princeton University, as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers; economists Heather Boushey and Jared Bernstein as council members; and Neera Tanden, chief executive of the Center for American Progress think tank, as head of the Office of Management and Budget.
Rouse would be the first Black woman to lead the Council of Economic Advisers, which advises the president on economic policy; Tanden would be the first woman of color to run the OMB; and Yellen would be the first female Treasury secretary.
All three would require Senate confirmation. Several Republicans, who currently hold a narrow majority in the chamber, have expressed opposition to Tanden, a veteran Washington figure who has detractors both on the right and the left. Control of the Senate will be decided in a pair of runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5.
The transition to a Biden administration has proceeded despite Republican President Donald Trump’s false claims that he lost the election as a result of voter fraud.
Arizona and Wisconsin, two battleground states where Trump has pursued fruitless efforts to overturn the results, each certified Biden’s victory on Monday. The certification of vote totals is typically a formality, but the process took on added significance due to Trump’s allegations.
The Trump campaign asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday to determine if 221,000 absentee ballots that allegedly lacked information should be excluded from the vote totals. Biden won the state by about 20,000 votes.
Trump has pursued a series of legal challenges in numerous states, although none has thus far resulted in any meaningful gains for the president. Most of the lawsuits have been rejected by judges, who have expressed skepticism about the claim that the election results are illegitimate.