Joe Biden has signed his signature $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package into law, wasting no time getting to work on administering the landmark piece of legislation after it passed Congress on Wednesday.
The so-called American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), passed on party-line votes by Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, is expected to lift millions of Americans out of poverty, according to scores of economic analyses, at the expense of adding a sizeable chunk to the federal deficit.
Mr Biden’s signing ceremony for the new law on Thursday comes on the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) declaration of the Covid-19 crisis as a global pandemic, as the nation’s death toll climbs to more than 520,000 American lives lost within a year.
“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country and giving people in this nation – working people, middle class folks, the people who build the country – a fighting chance,” he said from the Oval Office on Thursday before signing the legislation.
“That’s what the essence of it is,” he said.
He will address the nation on Thursday night in his first prime-time address as president.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the speech will aim to “level with the American people” about the grim realities of the pandemic’s impacts “but also provide them with a sense of hope of what is possible” as the federal government ramps up vaccine production and distribution.
The White House has said it plans for millions of the bill’s $1,400 direct payments – or stimulus checks – to hit Americans’ bank accounts as soon as this weekend, Ms Psaki said. Payments to eligible Americans will continue over the next several weeks, she said.
The package also extends through the early summer a pandemic-era federal unemployment programme that gives laid-off Americans $300 per week in addition to their state unemployment aid.
It also bakes into the US tax code an expanded child tax credit for families and sinks billions of dollars into public nutritional programmes, coronavirus testing facilities, and the nationwide vaccine distribution effort.
The federal government will also begin parcelling out the legislation’s outlay of hundreds of billions of dollars to state and local governments on the front lines of the pandemic response.
With a $1.9 trillion price tag, the new law is estimated to be the second most expensive in US history behind last March’s initial coronavirus response package known as the CARES Act, which was worth roughly $2.2 trillion.
Mr Biden’s signature legislation is more than twice as expensive as the stimulus package passed by Barack Obama’s administration in 2009 to kickstart the US economy as it recovered from the Great Recession and housing and financial crises.
The White House has touted the relief legislation as “the most progressive piece of legislation in history,” pointing to economic forecasts that it will lift as many as a third of Americans currently living below the poverty line above it.
“How do you say no to lifting 50 per cent of impoverished children in America out of poverty?” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a floor speech on Wednesday shortly before the House vote, foreshadowing the ensuing political battle between Democrats and Republicans on the bill.
The weeks-long negotiation process for ARPA was not always easy.
Seven Senate Democrats voted with all 50 Republicans to strip the final version of the legislation of a provision to gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $15 over the next five years.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia insisted that federal unemployment checks for recently laid off workers be reduced to $300 per week instead of the $400-per-week figure that initially passed in the House.
Progressive firebrands such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have criticised moderate Senate Democrats for paring down certain aspects of the legislation. But when it came time to vote on Wednesday, every single House Democrat fell in line behind ARPA with the lone exception of Congressman Jared Golden of Maine, who represents a purple district Donald Trump carried by 7 points over Mr Biden in last November’s election.
The Covid bill’s passage is a huge moment for Democrats early in the Biden presidency, showing that they can stick together to deliver aid to Americans despite the deep fissures on policy and governing approach that have rippled through the party in recent years.
“I’m so excited, I just can’t hide it!” a visibly and audibly animated Ms Pelosi said as she took the podium at a news conference earlier this week.
At a follow-up press conference on Thursday shortly before Mr Biden’s signing ceremony, the speaker touted the Covid relief bill as a “historic” and “monumental” legislative feat.
“It's probably the most consequential legislation most of us will ever, any of us will ever vote for in the Congress,” Ms Pelosi said, putting it on par with Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law that transformed medical coverage in the US.
Now, the hard part
Even though the bill is now in the hands of the executive branch to administer to the American people, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress know that the battle over the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has only just begun.
Republicans have assailed the bill as, in House minority leader Kevin McCarthy’s words, “a laundry list of left-wing priorities that predate the pandemic and do not meet the needs of American families”.
In a floor speech on Wednesday, the House GOP leader decried the bill’s $600m outlay for San Francisco, Ms Pelosi’s hometown, part of Republicans’ effort to recast the package as a Democratic payoff to their cronies and allies across the country.
But San Francisco is receiving no special treatment, Democrats have shot back: that $600m is less than 0.2 per cent of the legislation’s $350bn total spending to boost state and local governments.
No matter, the GOP, gunning to take back majorities in both the House and Senate in the 2022 midterms, will continue to lob verbal broadsides against ARPA after not a single Republican in either chamber voted for it.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell suggested in a Senate floor speech on Thursday that voters should be wary of Democrats claiming credit for the positive trends regarding the pandemic since the Trump administration laid the ground work for much of the response currently being carried out by the new Biden White House.
More than 95 million vaccine doses have been administered with more than 2 million more going in the arms of Americans every day. Schools have begun reopening for in-person classes. Several GOP-led states have rolled back restrictions on businesses and mandates to wear masks in public.
“None of these trends began on 20 January. President Biden and this Democratic government inherited a tide that had already begun to turn toward decisive victory,” Mr McConnell claimed on Thursday.
“The American people already built a parade that’s been marching toward victory. Democrats just want to sprint to the front of that parade and claim credit.”
Opening salvos in PR war
Democrats know they face a daunting PR war against Republicans for the hearts and minds of Americans who have been desperate for help amid a pandemic that has upended their health, economic wellbeing and social lives.
From Mr Biden and Ms Pelosi all the way down to the lowliest congressional backbenchers, the Democrats have agreed on how they plan to win the Covid PR war: a promotional tour.
Among the first stops on the administration’s “Help Is Here” tour: the president and Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Atlanta, Georgia, on 19 March.
“Over the next few weeks and months, we must take every opportunity we get to explain exactly how the American Rescue Plan will work for the American people,” Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer wrote to his colleagues on Tuesday.
Mr Schumer exhorted his fellow Democrats to join him on a publicity campaign for the landmark pandemic relief legislation, urging them to seize every opportunity to tout the bill’s many “people-focused provisions”: $1,400 stimulus checks for more than eight of every ten American households, an extension into the summer of the Covid-era federal unemployment benefits programme, the broadened child tax credit, and several other top-line measures.
“We cannot be shy in telling the American people how this historic legislation directly helps them,” he wrote.
Mr Biden is on board with that strategy.
On a conference call with House Democrats last week, the president explained how the Obama administration paid a political price for being too humble after signing into law the roughly $815bn stimulus package in 2009 to try to climb out of the Great Recession.
“We didn’t adequately explain what we had done. Barack was so modest,” Mr Biden lamented on the call. “I kept saying, ‘Tell people what we did.’ He said, ‘We don’t have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.’ And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility.”
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