President Biden on Friday made the case for Congress to quickly pass his nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package even if it means abandoning Republican support, warning of an economy that's still in the grips of the pandemic.
"It is very clear our economy is still in trouble," Biden said during remarks at the White House. "I know some in Congress think we’ve already done enough to deal with the crisis in the country. Others think that things are getting better and we can afford to sit back and either do little or do nothing at all. That’s not what I see. I see enormous pain in this country. A lot of folks out of work. A lot of folks going hungry."
Biden's comments came as the Labor Department reported that employment rose by just 49,000 last month, a lackluster start to the new year as COVID-19 and restrictions implemented to curb its spread continued to weigh on businesses. The unemployment rate edged down to 6.3%.
In total, the U.S. has recovered roughly half of the 22 million jobs lost during the first two months of the pandemic. There are still about 9.9 million more Americans out of work than there were in February before the crisis began, the report shows.
The broader economic recovery has also sputtered in recent months: Unemployment claims, a proxy for layoffs, have remained at about four-times their pre-crisis level. Consumer spending fell as Americans stayed home — and those who ventured out had limited options. GDP, the broadest measure of goods and services, grew just 1% in the final three months of the year, compared with an increase of 7.48% between the second and third quarters.
Democrats are moving to fast-track Biden's pandemic relief plan, with the Senate approving a budget resolution early Friday morning that will allow them to pass the measure without any Republican buy-ins using a procedural tool known as "reconciliation."
House committee chairs and Democratic leaders met with Biden at the White House before his address to discuss strategy. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it was her goal to have a bill approved and send it to the Senate within two weeks as lawmakers look to enact the proposal before the next unemployment cliff on March 14.
The legislation is expected to allocate $160 billion for vaccine distribution, boost expanded unemployment benefits to $400 a week through September and include a third stimulus check worth $1,400. It will add to the nation's already-ballooning deficit, which hit a record $3.1 trillion in fiscal year 2020, not including the $900 billion relief package passed in December.
Biden, who campaigned on uniting the country and ending partisan bickering, defended Democrats' decision to ram through the relief bill without GOP support, even after a group of 10 Republicans counteroffered the White House with a $600 billion proposal earlier this week.
"If I have to choose between getting help right now to Americans who are hurting so badly and getting bogged down in a lengthy negotiation or compromising on a bill that’s up to the crisis, that’s an easy choice," Biden said during the brief 15-minute speech, after which he did not take reporters' questions. "I’m going to help the American people who are hurting now. What Republicans have proposed is either to do nothing or not enough."
Still, the president has indicated that he's willing to acquiesce to Republicans and some moderate Democrats regarding eligibility for the direct cash payments. It's unclear what threshold his administration would start phasing out the money. Under previous relief packages, Americans earning less than $75,000 received the fully promised payment.
But Biden insisted the size of the check — $1,400 — won't change.
"I’m not cutting the size of the checks," he said Friday. "They’re going to be $1,400, period. That’s what the American people were promised."