Stall ball: Senate GOP schemes to cripple Biden’s economic stimulus plan
President-elect Joe Biden says the US is in the middle of a 'once-in-several-generations economic crisis' | Matt Slocum/AP

WASHINGTON—Senate Republicans, who still hold half the chamber’s 100 seats, are planning “stall ball” to slow aid to workers, their families, and everyone else, by delaying or denying passage of the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus plan Democratic President Joe Biden sent to Congress.

And that plan would put more money in workers’ hands, Biden’s Treasury Secretary nominee, Janet Yellen, told lawmakers.

“The [coronavirus] pandemic has caused widespread devastation. Whole industries have paused. Eighteen million unemployment insurance claims are being paid every week. Foodbank shelves are going empty. The damage has been sweeping,” she said. “Our response must be, too,” she testified.

“Over the next few months, we are going to need more aid to distribute the vaccine, to reopen schools, to help states keep firefighters and teachers on the job.

“We’ll need more funding to make sure unemployment insurance checks still go out and to help families who are at risk of going hungry or losing the roof over their heads.”

While Yellen said both she and Biden realize the additional money will add to the U.S. debt, “Right now, with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big. In the long run, I believe the benefits will far outweigh the costs, especially if we care about helping people who have been struggling for a very long time.”

The Republicans don’t think so.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told Forbes  he’s “not looking for a new program in the immediate future.” Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, top Republican on the Finance Committee—which will handle the package—told Yellen “even some prominent Democrat economists have said” Biden’s stimulus plan “does not seem to be well targeted.’” Grassley did not identify those economists.

“With the trillions already in the pipeline, and close to $1 trillion of relief enacted just a few short weeks ago, it is important to focus efforts on pandemic relief.  Now is not the time to enact a laundry list of liberal structural economic reforms,” the Iowan charged.

With a 50-50 Senate split, and Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote, the Democrats can’t afford defections, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., looks like one.

He doesn’t want the $2,000 checks for every adult, including the $600 Congress OKd in the last coronavirus economic aid package on Dec. 27. Instead, Manchin wants to target the funds to get more shots of anti-coronavirus vaccine into people’s arms, and to people who “really need” the cash help.

But money isn’t the only solution to the depression the coronavirus pandemic produced, and Biden moved fast on other ways to combat it, drawing praise from union leaders and congressional Democrats.

Many of his executive orders on Jan. 21 to combat the spread of the virus, officially called COVID-19, can be implemented without money, such as his mandatory anti-viral mask-wearing in all federal buildings and grounds and on airplanes and other transportation.

The emergency rule and similar anti-virus moves pleased AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and the $1.9 trillion plan pleased new Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt. A check of Sanders’ still-posted campaign website shows Biden’s fiscal plan virtually tracks what Sanders proposed on the campaign trail last year after the virus hit.

Trumka called Biden’s set of orders on anti-virus moves “a critical first step” in “keeping workers safe on the job.

“This swift action will save lives and protect workers who face dangerous conditions daily while serving our communities. Strong enforceable standards would require employers to develop workplace safety plans, implement science-based protection measures, train workers, and report outbreaks. It is a key piece of Biden’s national strategy to ramp up COVID-19 [coronavirus] testing, vaccinations, and the production of personal protective equipment so we can beat this virus once and for all.”

The Government Employees (AFGE) praised another Biden order, mandating mask-wearing on planes, trains, and transit. AFGE  tweeted its 45,000 airport screener members have been arguing for mandatory masks on planes and in airports ever since the pandemic’s official proclamation last March 13.

Biden also used the Defense Production Act to order U.S. firms to ramp up production of ventilators, N95 masks and other personal protective equipment  (PPE) needed to combat the coronavirus plague.  No longer, he said, should the U.S. have to rely on India, China, or other overseas suppliers for the N95 masks, ventilators, gloves, gear, and even syringes for the anti-virus vaccine.

And Biden ordered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a temporary emergency rule, effective immediately, forcing firms—and especially hospitals and nursing homes—to create and implement anti-virus worker protection plans. That came a day after Biden nominated James Frederick, the Steelworkers’ health and safety chief for nuclear workers, as OSHA administrator.

Biden’s use of the defense act to mandate PPE production pleased National Nurses United since the U.S. is still very short of those items, union Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN, told California’s U.S. lawmakers in a Jan. 21 briefing.

Hospitals “are running out of gloves, booties and other PPE” and nurses “are being told to wear N95s, which are supposed to be fitted, for 12-hour shifts,” which is dangerous, Castillo said.

“President Biden put forth a very strong first installment of an emergency relief plan that will begin to provide desperately needed assistance to tens of millions of working families facing economic hardship during the pandemic,” said Sanders.

Janet Yellen, the new head of the Federal Reserve, backs the Biden plan and says “now is the time to go big.” | Andrew Harnik/AP

His “COVID-relief plan includes many initiatives the American people want and need, including increasing the $600 direct payments to $2,000 and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.”

As Budget panel chair, Sanders plans “to work with the president-elect and my colleagues in Congress to provide bold emergency relief to the American people as soon as possible.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the new Finance Committee chair, faulted the GOP—and not just former White House occupant Donald Trump—for ignoring the physical and economic suffering the pandemic produced.

“Unemployment is once again rising. Federal Reserve data shows workers of modest incomes are facing Great Depression-level joblessness. One in five are out of work,” Wyden told Yellen. Meanwhile, “Trump repeatedly pushed a false choice between public health and economic recovery, and now the country has neither,” he added.

And Grassley and the other Republicans keep stalling aid until it’s overdue, Wyden said at the Yellen hearing.

“Key economic lifelines – expired, extended, expired, extended. Congress cannot go on with this ‘snooze button legislating.’ Our workers and our economy need a government that’s reliable and predictable. That means the Congress needs to tether the extension of unemployment benefits to economic conditions on the ground with automatic triggers.”

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CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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