Biden Unveils ‘Wartime’ Covid Response Plan

Biden Unveils ‘Wartime’ Covid Response Plan

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Plus, the next steps for Biden’s stimulus plan
Thursday, January 21, 2021

Biden Unveils ‘Wartime’ Covid Response Plan

In his first full day in office, President Joe Biden rolled out a comprehensive plan to address the Covid-19 pandemic, releasing a 200-page document outlining his strategy while signing executive actions to jumpstart the federal response to the coronavirus.

Pledging a “full-scale wartime effort,” Biden signed 10 executive orders Thursday that touched on a range of Covid-related issues, including vaccine production, mask wearing and worker protections. “We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and it will take months to turn this around,” Biden said. “Despite the best intentions we’re going to face setbacks. To a nation waiting for action, let me be clear on this point: Help is on the way.”

The document detailing Biden’s strategy calls for a coordinated national response to the pandemic based on science. “We can and will beat COVID-19,” it says. “America deserves a response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is driven by science, data, and public health – not politics. Through the release of the National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, the United States is initiating a coordinated pandemic response that not only improves the effectiveness of our fight against COVID-19, but also helps restore trust, accountability and a sense of common purpose in our response to the pandemic.”

The executive orders and actions Biden signed on Thursday address the following issues:

Vaccines: Increase the supply of vaccines to reach the goal of administering 100 million vaccines — enough for 50 million people — in Biden’s first 100 days.

Testing: Create a National Pandemic Testing Board to improve testing capacity throughout the country.

Treatments: Boost the development of therapeutics to fight the disease for those who get sick.

Supply chain: The federal government is ordered to “secure supplies necessary for responding to the pandemic” and examine whether further use of the Defense Production Act is warranted.

Supply costs: The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse states for the cost of protective equipment and National Guard deployments.

Schools: The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are directed to provide guidance for safe re-openings and operations.

Worker protections: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will release guidance on Covid-19, consider new standards and enforce safety requirements.

Travel: Facial coverings are required in airports and on some trains, planes, ships and buses. International travelers to the U.S. must provide proof of negative Covid-19 tests.

Fairness: Establish a Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force to ensure an equitable pandemic response.

Global leadership: Biden ordered the federal government to restore America's leadership on health issues.

Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation said that Biden’s plan contained few surprises. “Reading President Biden’s COVID plans, I’m struck by how predictable they are, following from things he's been saying for weeks,” Levitt wrote. “Biden will do plenty of controversial things, but predictability allows people and organizations to plan, not a small thing with multiple crises.”

The plan’s rollout comes amid accusations that the Biden administration received “no coronavirus vaccine distribution plan to speak of from the Trump administration,” as CNN reported Thursday. “There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch,” a source said.

Biden’s Covid response coordinator, Jeff Zients, laid the current state of the pandemic response squarely at the feet of the Trump administration. “For almost a year now, Americans could not look to the federal government for any strategy, let alone a comprehensive approach, to respond to Covid, and we’ve seen the tragic costs of that failure,” he told reporters.

However effective the new approach may prove to be, one thing is clear: It will require lots of funding from Congress to get off the ground, with much of the $1.9 trillion Biden has requested going toward the effort. “On the asymptomatic screening side, we’re woefully undercapacity, so we need the money in order to really ramp up testing, which is so important to reopening schools and businesses,” Zients told The New York Times. “We need the testing. We need the money from Congress to fund the national strategy that the president will lay out.”

Quote of the Day

“The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is and that’s it, let the science speak, it is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”

– Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, at a White House press briefing on Thursday.

Number of the Day

About 1.3 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday, including 900,000 in state systems and 424,000 in the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. “Last week was the 44th straight week total initial claims were greater than the worst week of the Great Recession,” Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute wrote. AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at jobs site Indeed, told The Wall Street Journal that “Covid hasn’t let up, and it’s still creating massive amounts of economic havoc.”

The Next Steps for Biden’s Stimulus Plan

The new administration and new Congress in Washington are quickly running into the same old debates about Covid relief.

President Joe Biden has called for a $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package, but Republicans have already dismissed the idea of delivering everything on Biden’s wish list. Democrats, meanwhile, face some internal differences about the best strategy for passing another relief package and on how far they should press their narrow majorities in the House and Senate.

Biden’s plan a ‘non-starter’ for Republicans:
“GOP lawmakers on Tuesday dismissed the argument by Janet Yellen, who’s awaiting Senate confirmation as Treasury secretary, that historically low interest rates mean major deficit spending isn’t a problem right now,” Bloomberg News noted.

Even Republican moderates like Sens. Mitt Romney (UT) and Lisa Murkowski (AK), both of whom played a key role in enacting last month’s relief package, have questioned the need for another massive spending bill so soon on the heels of that $900 billion effort.

“I suspect the whole package is a non-starter,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) told reporters Thursday. “But it’s got plenty of starters in it, and a lot of them are things that we proposed in terms of more assistance to the states. I think we’re ready to look at what it takes to move forward as effectively and quickly as we can on vaccine distribution, on securing what we need for the future.”

Republicans object to Biden’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and some have rejected providing the amount of aid Biden would like for state and local governments, among other criticisms of the president’s plan.

Democrats divided on the best path forward:
Democrats remain eager to pass another relief bill, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said Thursday that House committees will begin work on Biden’s plan next week even as the full House won’t return to session until the following week. “House Democrats have rearranged their schedule over the next two weeks, scrapping votes next week to allow the relevant committees to consider the various provisions of their emerging COVID-19 relief package,” The Hill said. “Pelosi suggested that package could hit the House floor as early as the week of Feb. 1.”

But Democrats are split on just what approach they should take, given that passage of a large aid bill in the 50-50 Senate would be more difficult. As PunchBowl News reported:

“There are elements in the White House and figures in the House Democratic Caucus pushing to pass a bill next week to plus up vaccine money and send targeted, $1,400 direct checks to Americans. This would be an immediate victory for the Biden administration and a Democratic Congress that’s just coming to power.

“But there are some in the Senate and others in the House who have voiced concern over this strategy. They don’t want to pass the popular stuff alone, they want to hold out for a larger deal that includes direct checks, vaccine money and a lot more.”

Timing is one consideration, since any larger relief package that includes Democratic priorities beyond direct payments and vaccine funding likely wouldn’t happen for weeks. But some Democrats reportedly worry that passing a narrower package now might mean that nothing else gets done later, with Republicans potentially willing to let emergency unemployment benefits lapse as scheduled in mid-March.

Using a tool called reconciliation would allow Democrats to push a package through Congress on their own, and avoid the threat of a filibuster by Senate Republicans, but that approach would be discordant with Biden’s call for unity and bipartisanship and it would also require limiting the size and scope of the package in order to comply with budget rules. The minimum wage hike, for example, couldn’t be included. Even then, Democrats would have to make sure that all 50 Democratic senators support the plan.

“We’re at that point where we can do whatever leadership says they want to do,” House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth (D-KY) told reporters, according to Politico. “We’re prepared to use reconciliation for the relief package and we’re saving it for the relief package because that’s our number one priority, but we hope we don’t have to use it.”

Reaching out to moderates:
Against that backdrop, Biden’s top economic adviser, Brian Deese, reportedly plans to meet with a bipartisan group of 16 centrist senators in the next week or so to push for the president’s proposals.

The senators expected to take part in that meeting include Republicans Shelly Moore Capito (WV), Bill Cassidy (LA), Susan Collins (ME), Jerry Moran (KS), Murkowski, Rob Portman (OH), Romney and Todd Young (IN). The Democrats are Dick Durbin (IL), Maggie Hassan (NH), John Hickenlooper (CO), Mark Kelly (AZ), Joe Manchin (WV), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Mark Warner (VA). Sen Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is also anticipated to be in the meeting.

Some progressive Democrats are already warning that the administration shouldn’t only focus on centrists, further highlighting the challenges Biden could face as he tries to reach bipartisan agreement on a relief deal.

Tweet of the Day

From Winnie Wong, a former senior adviser to the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign:

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