Biden Boosts Virus Aid as Opposition Grows to $1.9 Trillion Bill
President Joe Biden turned to executive action to help Americans with finances depleted by the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, as his more ambitious legislative proposals face mounting opposition on Capitol Hill.
Biden directed his administration to boost food assistance for needy Americans and leverage federal contracts to improve pay for low-wage workers in executive orders signed Friday at the White House.
“Families are going hungry. People are at risk of being evicted. Job losses are mounting again,” Biden said. “We need to act.”
He also restored collective bargaining rights for federal workers and directed the Treasury Department to do more to help the estimated 8 million eligible Americans who haven’t yet received stimulus checks.
White House officials described the efforts as a down payment on broader economic efforts they’re pursuing as part of a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that includes additional direct payments to many Americans as well as billions of dollars in funding for vaccine manufacturing and distribution.
But key Senate Republicans — including moderates like Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah — have voiced opposition to the price tag. Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, is planning to speak with a group of 16 lawmakers Sunday to discuss the proposal.
“The bottom line is this we’re in a national emergency we need to act like we’re in a national emergency,” Biden said.
Complicating congressional action is former President Donald Trump’s looming impeachment trial in the Senate. On Friday, Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said he expected the House of Representatives to transmit the article of impeachment at the beginning of next week. A trial weighing Trump’s culpability for the insurrection at the Capitol building earlier this month could dominate the Senate calendar to the detriment of Biden’s legislative priorities and cabinet confirmations.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told donors on a video call Thursday night she had wanted to pass Biden’s Covid-19 relief legislation via the budget reconciliation process in two weeks, according to a person familiar with the comments. That process could eliminate the need for Republican support in the Senate by lowering the threshold for passage to a simple majority.
“These actions are not a substitute for comprehensive legislative relief but they will provide a critical lifeline to millions of familes,” Deese said of the executive actions at a briefing Friday.
As part of his unilateral push in the interim, the president is asking the Labor Department to issue guidance clarifying that workers can refuse employment that jeopardizes their health and still receive unemployment benefits. That could help service-industry and factory workers worried about the spread of the coronavirus to stay home from work.
Biden is also asking the Department of Agriculture to issue new guidance that would allow as many as 12 million additional Americans to have access to food-stamp benefits that were enhanced during the pandemic. The president is asking the department to make it easier for families to access a program providing benefits to children who would normally qualify for free school lunches, and increase the benefit by 15%.
Biden is requesting the Treasury Department create new online tools to help Americans who have not yet received the coronavirus stimulus checks to which they’re entitled.
The president is asking the Department of Veterans Affairs to halt collections on overpayments and debts, in a move the administration says could help as many as 2 million veterans. Early in the pandemic, the VA halted collection for unpaid copay charges for medical care and prescriptions as well as pre-existing debts, but the department resumed collection at the beginning of the new year.
Among other policy changes, Biden is rescinding a trio of Trump executive orders that made it easier to fire federal workers and imposed time limits on collective bargaining negotiations. The new president’s order directs federal agencies to bargain with federal workers when union contracts expire.
Biden is also eliminating Trump’s move to create a “Schedule F” classification for federal employees, which would have made it easier to hire and fire high-level civil servants. Democrats complained that the Trump administration sought the change to make it easier to embed political allies in the upper tiers of the civil service.
The executive order directs the administration to work on a rule mandating federal contractors pay a $15 an hour minimum wage, and asks departments and agencies to develop recommendations about how they can increase pay for federal workers making below that amount.
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