What to Know in Washington: Democratic Virus Aid Efforts Ramp Up

Democrats are preparing to move forward quickly on coronavirus relief measures with or without Republican help after early resistance from moderates to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal.

Many Democrats say they want to pursue a bipartisan bill, but leadership could move forward on a two-bill track in the event they’re unable to garner Republican support. One option presumes moving ahead with bipartisan votes amid continuing discussions between the Biden administration and lawmakers on the president’s proposal. The other option would be a more limited Democrats-only bill that could be passed by mid-March — when extended and expanded unemployment benefits expire.

Democratic aides on the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees are preparing the dual-track Covid-19 relief plans, Laura Davison reports. To move forward without Republicans, Democrats would us reconciliation, a fast-track budget procedure that limits the policies that could be included in the final legislation.

House Democrats intend to hold a floor vote on a fiscal 2021 budget resolution next week, House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said yesterday. That resolution would include reconciliation instructions that could help Democrats pass a coronavirus bill through the Senate with a simple majority, rather than 60 votes. Democrats plan to take the resolution straight to the floor rather than holding a House Budget Committee markup, Yarmuth said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who’s set to become Budget Committee chairman, said he wants Republicans to work with him but that reconciliation is an option if they don’t. “We have got to move,” Sanders told reporters yesterday. “The American people are hurting and we have got to respond rapidly. I hope my Republican colleagues come on board, but if not, we’re going forward.”

Photographer: Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner/Bloomberg
As the Top Democrat on the Budget Committee, Sanders would help craft reconciliation instructions.

Focus on Individual Aid: Democrats plan to prioritize targeted relief for individuals rather than businesses in the relief bill, two tax-writing committee staffers said yesterday. Beth Bell, an appointed staff director of the Select Revenue Measures Subcommittee by Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.), cited two guiding principles: targeted relief for individuals, and coordination with the Biden administration and Senate Democrats. Read more from Michael Bologna.

  • Declaring that the battle against Covid-19 is not over, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell pledged to keep the monetary spigots wide open to aid the pandemic-hit economy, brushing aside concerns the super-easy stance will spawn a stock market bubble and too-high inflation. Read more from Rich Miller, Craig Torres and Steve Matthews.
  • More than 6 million Americans went on food stamps between February and September of last year as the pandemic-induced economic slowdown pushed families into poverty. The data released yesterday on the surge in food assistance further documents the ongoing toll taken by the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression as the Federal Reserve warned that the recovery is weakening, Mike Dorning reports.

Eshoo Preps Virus Aid Measures: A key House committee is laying groundwork for injecting billions of dollars into local public health systems to speed up Covid-19 vaccination efforts and strengthen the country’s public health workforce. House Energy and Commerce members are working with Biden administration officials to assemble many of the health-related aspects of the relief plan, said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the health subcommittee’s chair. “We’re in a race against death.” Alex Ruoff has more.

Democrats Seek $466 Billion to Help Schools Crippled by Virus: House Democrats are also pushing for legislation to fund upgraded school facilities, save teachers’ jobs, and extend the school year to offset learning shortfalls after classrooms shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic. Taken together, the package of bills unveiled today would authorize an additional roughly $466 billion in federal support for education over the next decade. Read more from Andrew Kreighbaum.

From the New White House

Obama-Era Lessons for Biden: Biden can learn a lot from the successes, and stumbles, of his former boss, President Barack Obama, as the new administration launches an ambitious policy agenda, Democratic strategists say. The biggest lessons: Move fast, keep it simple and don’t chase bipartisanship too hard. Ryan Teague Beckwith takes a look at how strategists say he should move forward.

Biden Plans to Open Obamacare for Pandemic: Biden will make it easier for Americans to buy health insurance during the pandemic, reopening the federal Obamacare marketplace with an order today that’s a step toward reinvigorating a program his predecessor tried to eliminate. Another directive Biden will issue today will immediately rescind the so-called Mexico City Policy, which prohibits international non-profits from receiving U.S. funding if they provide abortion counseling or referrals.

The Obamacare executive order will create a special enrollment period for plans sold in the federal Healthcare.gov market from Feb. 15 to May 15, offering a path to health care for people who’ve found themselves without insurance coverage after losing their jobs. The order also directs agencies to look for ways to strengthen Medicaid, the federal health program for low-income people, and the Affordable Care Act more broadly. Read more from Nancy Cook, Sara Hansard and John Tozzi.

New CDC Director Faces Institution in Crisis: The new leader of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is confronting two difficult missions at the same time: Leading the agency’s Covid-19 response amid the pandemic and trying to restore the agency’s stature after its profile was diminished during the Trump administration. Rochelle Walensky, who most recently was chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, has treated patients on the front lines of the Covid-19 outbreak. The director’s post doesn’t require Senate confirmation, and Walensky took office last week.

She arrives in an accelerating crisis and inherits an agency whose reputation has been tarnished. Early in the pandemic, the Trump administration halted the CDC’s briefings and the agency faded from view. By the fall, mounting evidence showed how administration officials interfered in the agency’s work, slowing down publication of guidance and stalling access to $1 billion in pandemic aid Congress intended for the agency. Hours after Biden’s inauguration, Walensky ordered a “comprehensive review” of all CDC guidance on Covid. Guidelines would be updated “so that people can make decisions and take action based upon the best available evidence,” she said in a news release. Read more from John Tozzi and Josh Wingrove.

Biden’s Early Climate Blitz Goes Faster, Further Than Expected: Oil and gas companies knew they would face a fight with Biden, who had campaigned on tackling climate change. Nobody expected fossil fuel to come under such an immediate attack. Biden yanked the permit of the Keystone XL Pipeline his very first day in office. He didn’t simply rejoin the Paris climate pact, but had his climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, commit yesterday to “the most aggressive” carbon cut the U.S. can make. Biden then signed a climate-related executive order suspending new oil and gas leases on public lands, directing federal agencies to purchase electric cars by the thousands, and seeking to end fossil-fuel subsidies. It all left the oil industry stunned on what the Biden team had pitched as Climate Day. Read more from David R. Baker and Ari Natter.

  • Biden’s moratorium faced an immediate legal attack from an energy trade group. Western Energy Alliance, which says it represents 200 oil and natural gas firms, said the administration’s suspension of leases is “unsupported and unnecessary,” and an overreach, a petition filed in Wyoming federal court says. Joel Rosenblatt has more.
  • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she’ll try to “better understand” the financial risks of taking steps to combat climate change, while expressing support for Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone pipeline. Yellen, as part of written responses to questions from senators, stopped short of saying that the government’s move to halt the oil project rendered it a stranded asset that could pose financial stability risks. Read more from Saleha Mohsin.

Gensler to Confront Stock Market Hit by Historic Mania: From the mania engulfing GameStop and penny stocks to the explosive growth of SPACs, a nervous question is starting to make the rounds within American finance: Will the next sheriff of Wall Street be able to tame these wild markets? Gary Gensler, Biden’s pick to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission, is poised to confront a run-up in share prices with few parallels in modern history. Perhaps more worrisome, the astronomical valuations are tied to companies like GameStop that aren’t expected to turn a profit for years, or, in the case of special-purpose acquisition companies, stocks with no actual business behind them. The looming threat for Gensler is that the good times could end on his watch, triggering a crash that hits retail investors who’ve contributed to the boom particularly hard. Read more from Ben Bain and Robert Schmidt.

Blinken Puts Ball in Iran’s Court on Nuke Talks: Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. will meet its commitments under the Iran nuclear agreement only after leaders in Tehran do so, highlighting a dispute that’s poised to become one of the Biden administration’s most politically charged foreign-affairs challenges. In his first briefing as America’s head diplomat, Blinken told reporters that the U.S. wants to start meeting its obligations again under the Iran deal, from which Trump withdrew in 2018. Read more from Nick Wadhams.

Biden Team Slams China in Calls to Asia Allies: Biden and his team staked out early opposition to Chinese territorial claims in a series of calls to Asian allies, as Beijing warned that trying to contain the country was “mission impossible.” Biden reaffirmed in a telephone call with the Japanese prime minister the U.S.’s commitment to defend uninhabited islands controlled by Japan and claimed by China that have been a persistent point of contention between the Asian powerhouses. Meanwhile, Blinken rejected Chinese territorial claims in a call with his Philippine counterpart and emphasized U.S. alliances in talks with top Australian and Thai officials. Read more from Isabel Reynolds.

Biden’s Fair Housing Agenda Begins With Undoing Trump’s Rules: Biden signed an executive order Tuesday directing his administration to end policies that enable discrimination in housing and lending, and acknowledging the federal government’s role in erecting systemic barriers to fair housing. It’s a blueprint for an agenda aimed at swiftly undoing the controversial efforts of his predecessor, tasking the Department of Housing and Urban Development to review two key rules implemented under the Trump administration. Read more from Kriston Capps.

Food Industry Races to Put Stamp on Trade Policy: Lawmakers and food industry groups are scrambling to shape Biden‘s international trade policies, even as the administration sets priorities on the coronavirus, the vaccine rollout, and economic revitalization. Trade “almost has to be a back burner issue to a degree,” said Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow for the International Food Policy Research Institute. Read more from Megan U. Boyanton.

Elections & Politics

GOP Neutrality Pledge Raises Questions About Trump’s Future Role: The Republican Party will not automatically back former President Donald Trump in a 2024 presidential primary race, leaving open the question of how to keep his millions of supporters tied to the party as it focuses on congressional elections next year. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel reiterated the party’s openness to a primary battle yesterday, telling the Associated Press that “the party has to stay neutral.”

“I’m not telling anybody to run or not to run in 2024,” she said. “That’s going to be up to those candidates going forward.” Still, McDaniel said she sees Trump having a continuing role to play, even if he isn’t a candidate. “What I really do want to see him do, though, is help us win back majorities in 2022,” she said. Read more from Gregory Korte.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will meet today with Trump in Florida, Fox News reports.

How Democrats Flipped the Senate: Many factors went into the surprise double Senate wins of Georgia Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, including changing demographics and Trump’s strong-arm tactics to overturn the state’s November election results. But one of the most important was Democrats’ decision to carry out a ground game that was 10 times larger than in the November general election, says Gwen Mills, secretary treasurer of Unite Here.

The effort was oiled with a staggering amount of cash. Warnock and Ossoff raised more than $210 million between them, according to their most recent Federal Election Commission reports, not counting the tens of millions that flowed through independent groups. Read more from Margaret Newkirk.

To contact the reporters on this story: Giuseppe Macri in Washington at gmacri@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at zsherwood@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com