Richmond Times-Dispatch: Congress OKs $1.9T virus relief bill in win for Biden, Dems

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH

A Congress torn along party lines approved the landmark $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Wednesday, as President Joe Biden and Democrats claimed a major triumph on legislation focusing the government’s spending might on twin pandemic and economic crises.

The House gave final congressional approval to the sweeping package by a near party line 220-211 vote precisely seven weeks after Biden entered the White House and four days after the Senate passed the bill.

Republicans in both chambers opposed the legislation unanimously, characterizing it as bloated, crammed with liberal priorities and heedless of signs the crises are easing.

“Help is here,” Biden tweeted moments after the roll call, which ended with applause from Democratic lawmakers. Biden said he’d sign the measure Friday.

Most noticeable to many Americans are provisions providing up to $1,400 direct payments this year to most adults and extending $300 weekly emergency unemployment benefits into early September. But the legislation goes far beyond that.

The measure addresses Democrats’ campaign promises and Biden’s top initial priority of easing a one-two punch that first hit the country a year ago. Since then, many Americans have been relegated to hermitlike lifestyles in their homes to avoid a disease that’s killed over 525,000 people and plunged the economy to its deepest depths since the Great Depression.

“Today we have a decision to make of tremendous consequence,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “a decision that will make a difference for millions of Americans, saving lives and livelihoods.”

Democrats were empowered by three dynamics: their control of the White House and Congress, polls showing robust support for Biden’s approach and a moment when most voters care little that the national debt is soaring toward a stratospheric $22 trillion.

Republicans noted that they’ve overwhelmingly supported five previous relief bills that Congress has approved since the pandemic struck a year ago, when divided government under former President Donald Trump forced the parties to negotiate.

They said this one solely reflected Democratic goals by setting aside money for family planning programs and federal workers who take leave to cope with COVID-19 and failing to require that shuttered schools accepting aid reopen their doors.

“If you’re a member of the swamp, you do pretty well under this bill,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., referring to the added federal borrowing the measure will force.

Even so, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, who like all Republicans voted against the bill, touted its $29 billion for the ailing restaurant industry, tweeting that it would help them “survive the pandemic.” Democrats predicted this week that Republicans would do that, with Pelosi saying, “It’s typical that they will vote no and take the dough.”

A dominant feature of the 628-page bill is initiatives making it one of the biggest federal efforts in years to assist lower- and middle-income families. Included are expanded tax credits over the next year for children, child care and family leave — some of them credits that Democrats have signaled they’d like to make permanent — plus spending for renters, feeding programs and people’s utility bills.

Besides the direct payments and jobless benefit extension, the measure has hundreds of billions for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, schools, state and local governments and ailing industries from airlines to concert halls. There is aid for farmers of color, pension systems and student borrowers, and subsidies for consumers buying health insurance and states expanding Medicaid coverage for lower earners.

The legislation would reduce the number of people living in poverty this year by around one-third, from 44 million to 28 million, the liberal-leaning Urban Institute estimated Wednesday. The poverty rate for children would be reduced by over half, said the institute.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found last week that 70% of Americans back Biden’s response to the virus, including a hefty 44% of Republicans. According to a CNN poll released Wednesday, the relief bill is backed by 61% of Americans, including nearly all Democrats, 58% of independents and 26% of Republicans.

***

Virginia’s congressional delegation split along party lines on the legislation.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, whose district includes parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties, said the bill would provide timely help in vaccinating Virginians against COVID-19 and preventing the virus from spreading, while extending enhanced unemployment benefits, providing financial aid to families and boosting small businesses, especially restaurants, that have been hit hard by the pandemic.

“Nearly one year after the virus first arrived in the commonwealth, we’ve built momentum in Virginia and across the country in our fight against the virus and in our economic recovery,” Spanberger said. “This legislation provides a major vehicle for maintaining this momentum.”

“This strong, coordinated effort to protect our most vulnerable, reopen our businesses, and get our children fully back to school is a wise investment in our post-COVID-19 future,” she said. “ We are making progress, but we need to keep our foot on the gas.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, whose district includes Hanover and New Kent counties and much of eastern Virginia, voted against the legislation, which he described as a “reckless pork package” that would raise the national debt.

“The majority has decided to finance their political interests on the backs of the American people,” Wittman said. “Wasteful provisions in the bill do more to achieve Democrats’ political goals than responsibly dealing with the challenges facing our nation.

“This is bill is a missed opportunity for our nation,” he added.

Only one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, voted against the bill. One Republican did not vote.

The Senate already had passed a revised version of the bill, with Virginia’s senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, voting in favor on Saturday. The House vote on Wednesday endorsed the Senate amendments.

***

The White House began highlighting the legislation immediately after it gained final congressional approval, wasting no time in selling the public on Biden’s first legislative victory.

The West Wing began an ambitious campaign to showcase the bill’s contents while looking to build momentum for the next, perhaps thornier, parts of the president’s sweeping agenda. Though Biden will sign the bill on Friday, the White House didn’t wait, turning the bill signing into a three-day event.

The president tweeted moments after the House the bill that “Help is here — and brighter days lie ahead.” He later told reporters that “this bill represents a historic victory for the American people,” while the White House also released a slickly produced video touting the passage, and Democrats on Capitol Hill staged an elaborate signing ceremony.

Biden will make the first prime-time address of his presidency on Thursday to mark the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdowns and will use the moment to pitch toward the future and how prospects will be improved by the package.

Animating the public relations outreach is a determination to avoid repeating the mistakes from more than a decade earlier, when President Barack Obama’s administration did not fully educate the public about the benefits of its own economic recovery plan.

As the White House works to get out its message, expect more travel by the president, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, as well as Cabinet secretaries and others, according to a memo by deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon.

The document was circulated among West Wing senior staff members on Wednesday and was obtained by The Associated Press.

“He will be hitting the road, the vice president will be hitting the road, the first lady will be hitting the road,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, adding that the administration would also make officials available for local news interviews and other virtual events from Washington.

A blitz of interviews and events with more than 400 mayors and governors, including Republicans, will begin in earnest next week; the local officials will discuss what the plan means for their communities.

There also will be an effort to plainly spell out the benefits of the plan and how it could affect each American.

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