Joe Biden's COVID-19 bill.

Is it right on time or too late and all wrong?
Isaac Saul Jan 19, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill. We’re skipping today’s reader question to give this some extra space.

Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America

Feedback.

Thank you all for the feedback on hyperlinking to paywalled news outlets. Many of you found these links a little annoying, but I wanted to preserve the integrity of what I’m trying to do — which is link out to the original source of a story when that seems appropriate. The solution I landed on was a parenthetical link with a heads up about whether the report was free or if you may need a subscription — and the feedback was really positive. I’ve always promised to give Tangle readers a say in the direction of this newsletter and this felt like an organic way to do that, so thank you all for the nudge.


Quick hits.

  1. Joe Biden plans to unveil a massive immigration bill on his first day in office that would provide an eight-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. (Associated Press, free)
  2. U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan are now at 2,500, the lowest levels since 2001. It’s short of the full withdrawal President Trump hoped for, but is a major milestone for an effort that faced internal opposition. (The American Conservative, free)
  3. Joe Biden nominated Dr. Rachel Levine to serve as Assistant Secretary for Health  at HHS. Levin, a pediatrician who serves as Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, would become the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed federal official. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  4. After statehouses deployed National Guard troops and braced for violence, the much-anticipated right-wing protests over the weekend ended up being small, uneventful, and nonviolent affairs. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  5. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is yet to announce when she’ll send articles of impeachment to the Senate, which would set off Trump’s second impeachment trial. Sources say she’ll hold back at least until the end of this week. (Politico, free)

What D.C. is talking about.

Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan. Last week, Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion plan he hopes to pass shortly after entering office. The president-elect said the bill is intended to “end a crisis of deep human suffering” and it focuses primarily on getting more direct cash to Americans and ramping up the vaccine effort.

Biden dubbed it the “American Rescue Plan,” and it comes just three weeks after the Senate passed a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package as part of an omnibus spending bill.

The bill’s most talked about component is the $400 billion allocated to pushing out vaccines by setting up distribution centers, staffing a workforce to give the shots, and targeting funding for schools that need money to safely reopen. Here are some other elements of the bill:

$1,400 direct payments to most households (expanding eligibility to college-aged students)

  • $400 weekly unemployment supplement (up from $300) until September
  • Expanded paid leave and increases in the child tax credit
  • An increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour
  • $50 billion to increase COVID-19 testing, including in schools
  • Free vaccines to everyone, regardless of their immigration status
  • $350 billion for state and local governments

Since details of the plan were unveiled, Congressional Republicans have mostly balked, indicating it faces an uphill battle in the House and Senate. Biden could try to pass elements of the bill via reconciliation, which would require just the 50-vote majority, but if he wants to pass the bill in its entirety he’ll need at least 10 Republican senators to get on board.

Below, we’ll examine some reactions to the bill. This is probably the first major moment for the Biden administration, so we’re going to give it the appropriate space by skipping today’s reader question.


What the left is saying.

The left is mostly supportive of the plan — it has an emphasis on expanding aid to low-income families and fulfills the promise of $2,000 to every American ($1,400 on top of the $600 checks that went out last month), while emphasizing vaccine distribution and elevating Democratic priorities like increasing the minimum wage and unemployment benefits.

The Washington Post editorial board said Biden’s vaccine plan would work, but they need to be executed quickly after Trump’s “calamitous handling” of the COVID-19 response.

“Mr. Biden’s proposed $20 billion vaccination program includes creation of community vaccination centers, possibly run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency with help from the National Guard, and mobile vaccination clinics for hard-to-reach areas,” the board said. “He has proposed to fund the hiring of 100,000 public health workers to assist with vaccination and contact tracing, and later on work in local public health jobs. All this is logical, but how quickly can it be done? If Congress takes a month to act and more time is required to stand up new vaccination centers, the delays will be costly. The plan to boost staffing has merit, but where will these people come from? How long will it take to get the funds, hire workers and train them?

“Mr. Biden also correctly proposes to scale up diagnostic testing, one of the notable disasters of the Trump presidency, as well as address vulnerable groups and populations, and remedy the persistent shortages of personal protective equipment,” the board said. “He would fund a national disease surveillance capacity that would allow monitoring of the evolving virus by whole genome sequencing, as is done in Britain. The pandemic has made it starkly clear that investing in virus early warning is every bit as important as ballistic missile early warning.”

In The New York Times, Ezra Klein wrote that Biden’s plan is “maddeningly obvious,” saying “that it is possible for Joe Biden and his team to release a plan this straightforward is the most damning indictment of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response imaginable.”

“In the absence of a coordinated federal campaign, the job has fallen to overstretched, underresourced state and local governments, with predictably wan results,” Klein said. “According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the roughly 31 million doses that have been sent out, about 12 million have been used. The good news is that the incoming Biden administration sees the situation clearly.

“The person in charge of managing the hell out of the operation is Jeff Zients, who served as chief performance officer under President Barack Obama and led the rescue of HealthCare.gov,” Klein said. “In a Saturday briefing with journalists, Zients broke the plan down into four buckets. Loosen the restrictions on who can get vaccinated (and when). Set up many more sites where vaccinations can take place. Mobilize more medical personnel to deliver the vaccinations. And use the might of the federal government to increase the vaccine supply by manufacturing whatever is needed, whenever it is needed, to accelerate the effort… Most elements of the plan are surprising only because they are not already happening.”

In The American Prospect, David Dayen argued that Democrats are ignoring lessons from the 2020 elections — to run on a simple populist message and pass standalone cash to every American. Instead, they’re trying to stuff all their policy agendas into one bill, and even though Dayen will “agree with almost every policy in it,” he’s worried about the optics.

“Once you open up the bill to existing policy planks that Senators have been carrying for a long time, you’re just asking for everyone to get their favorite piece in there,” he said. “And with only 50 Democratic votes, every one of them has leverage. So you see Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) talking up paid family and medical leave. You see Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) promoting full funding of the Defense Production Act and building public manufacturing capacity for essential medications, part of a 15-page memo. You see Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who will run the Budget Committee where this package could go through, seeking an emergency universal health care program.

“All of these things are important, even critical,” he said. “But it will be impossible to get a quick-strike victory with all of those moving parts. And it will result in another 5,000-page bill with all kinds of goodies dumped in to placate Senators. Moreover, there’s no way you get any Republican votes for something that expansive, leading you to the budget reconciliation route, which only requires the bare minimum of 50 votes.”


What the right is saying.

The right is opposed to the bill, saying that it’s coming too soon after last month’s relief bill and that it’s stuffed with Democratic priorities that don’t address the most pressing needs to fight coronavirus.

The National Review editorial board called the bill “a mess,” saying the government’s initial objective was to keep people safely at home — but now it should be implementing measures to do the opposite: get people back to work.

“In this context, President-elect Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package misses the mark,” the board said. “Even if the public-health provisions were to succeed in reopening the economy, much of the rest of Biden’s plan guarantees that it will reopen weaker. For one, an expanded unemployment-insurance top-up of $400 a week would mean more than 40 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits would make more off-the-job than on-the-job at least until September, and possibly for longer. The food-service and retail industries hit hardest by the pandemic would see the largest shortfalls in labor, exacerbating the challenges they’ve faced over the past year. Enhanced unemployment may have been reasonable when we wanted workers to stay home, but it’s catastrophic when we want them to go back to work.

“Meanwhile, Biden’s proposed minimum-wage increase to $15 nationally would eliminate an estimated 1.3 million jobs, hitting low-income states hardest,” the board said. “In Mississippi, where the median wage is $15, as many as half the state’s workers would be at risk. A minimum-wage hike may be high on the Democratic wish list, but it does not belong in an emergency-relief bill.”

Brad Polumbo echoed that sentiment, calling the minimum wage hike “a partisan poison pill” and writing that it’s “another reminder that he may have an unusually divisive notion of unity.”

“Such a provision in no way, shape, or form belongs in a COVID-19 relief package,” Polumbo said. “Whether you support or oppose it, it’s hard to argue that this hike has more than a tangential relationship to the problems caused by COVID-19. It would be wrong for Republicans to slip pro-life or pro-gun policy reforms into an ostensibly emergency economic legislative package. And it’s similarly cynical for Democrats to sneak left-wing policy priorities into legislation they’re selling as must-pass emergency relief. But even setting this objection aside, the inclusion of a $15 minimum wage in Biden’s plan is badly flawed on the merits alone.

“Many states either set their state’s minimum wage rates at the federal rate or have no separate state minimum and simply rely on the federal rule,” Polumbo said. “In fact, no state in the country yet has a $15 statewide minimum wage, although some are scheduled to phase one in and several large cities have introduced a $15 (or higher) rate. Making the switch would shock labor markets.”

In Hot Air, Ed Morrissey hit Mitch McConnell for making a miscalculation by opposing $2,000 checks and watering down a major stimulus bill that could have helped Republicans politically.

“Remember when Mitch McConnell bet the Senate majority on refusing to take up the direct-stimulus relief bill from the House? How’s that working out?” he asked. “When the debate over the direct payments came up before the election, the safest choice would have been to simply order a second round of $1200 payments — but McConnell and Senate Republicans balked. Donald Trump made it clear he wanted to ‘go big’ on direct payments after the election too, even if he waited far too long to insert himself into the negotiations. McConnell balked at that too, even when Trump went public with the $2000 figure. He still had one more chance to help out David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler by allowing them to spearhead an effort to pass HR9051 the week before the special election, but McConnell blocked the bill from a floor vote.”

“Now, not only will Biden get credit for it if it passes, McConnell can’t keep it from coming to floor any more,” he said. “McConnell might be able to filibuster it, but Democrats are already planning to use reconciliation to force it through if necessary — and plenty of Republicans might not want to start out 2021 by blockading the new administration’s emergency aid push, especially after the egregious optics of the past week or so. We might have been better off with Pelosi’s last position before the final bill of $2.4 trillion, rather than the combined spending between the two bills of $3 trillion or more. Great job, everyone!”


My take.

There are two things to get out of the way right off the bat, and neither are great for Trump and Senate Republicans.

First, I hammered Nancy Pelosi throughout the last round of COVID-19 negotiations for overplaying her hand and ultimately losing many of the Democratic priorities she insisted on. The White House had, at different times, offered larger packages than what Democrats ended up with — and Pelosi never took them up and pressed Republicans into a vote. But if she gets what she wants from Biden with a slim Senate majority now — a third package that Democrats will largely get credit for — it’d be the kind of legacy-defining win for her that would be featured in any historical retelling of her time in office. And it would come in what could be her last one or two years as Speaker of the House. It was a huge gamble that, so far, has paid off.

Two, I gave Trump appropriate credit for cutting all the red tape he could in order to get vaccines authorized by the feds for mass distribution. I also said that executing that distribution would be critical to measuring his success, given that the federal government’s execution in getting the vaccine to Americans is much in its control than developing the vaccine. So far, the distribution is running well behind schedule and being badly marred by confusion and finger-pointing.

In that context, the bill as it relates to COVID-19 is a no-brainer. Dump all the money and resources needed into getting pop-up vaccination centers rolling and making sure testing sites are well-staffed and health care employees well trained. I doubt many Americans or Republicans are going to object to those elements.

But the arguments against the minimum wage increase are the most compelling — which makes its inclusion the biggest head scratcher to me. I’ve advocated for a minimum wage increase in this newsletter before, and I’ve called out the horrific wages tens of millions of Americans have to live on in today’s economy, but there are plenty of good reasons not to push it right now. First, and most obviously, is that businesses are already struggling across the board — and doubling the minimum wage is a good way to put even more pressure on those in small businesses responsible for budgeting and payroll.

Second, on the politics of it, is that pushing a minimum wage increase in this bill just looks like what it is: Democrats stuffing a litany of priorities into a relief package. There was lots of bad press, including from Tangle, about all the things that made it into December’s omnibus package. If Democrats want to win the minimum wage fight, let them do it by lobbying 10 Republicans to change the minimum wage in a bill about the minimum wage — and then fight it out in the court of public opinion.

Third and finally is that it puts the entire bill at risk. Biden is fulfilling his promise to clear $2,000 payments to Americans and increase unemployment, and whether you like that policy or not, it’s what he said he’d do if Democrats re-took the Senate. They did, and he’s following through. The details on expanding the child tax credit and making college-aged dependents eligible for relief checks are superb — it’s a wonder the Senate and Trump administration left those on the table. It’s good policy that gets help to the people who need it most.

But all of it is put in jeopardy by stuffing the bill the way he has. If they can’t get 60 votes (which they won’t, as is) and have to go the budget reconciliation route, then Biden will have to limit the bill and start picking a few priorities — as Dayen lays out in his op-ed. Not only that, but by not limiting the bill for a quick strike, Biden may have to do weeks or months of dancing with Republicans he knows he’ll probably never get on board for what’s included in the bill — time that could delay the things we needed yesterday (like more money for vaccine distribution). It feels like an odd misstep to make out of the gate, and while many on the left will cheer the breadth of the package and the fact Democrats are using the crisis as an opportunity, it’s hard to see how it ends up being a net positive for the most time-sensitive things that need to be addressed.


A story that matters.

Parler, the Twitter alternative that has been populated almost entirely by users with far right-wing views, is back online in a limited form after Amazon Web Services stopped hosting the platform last week. Amazon cited reports that users used the platform to plan an insurrection attempt at the Capitol building. While the Parler app, which is more popular than the website, remains down, it’s the first step in bringing the platform back online. If it gets back to full use, many are watching to see if President Trump creates an account on the platform — which could replace the megaphone he had on Twitter before being permanently suspended. A functioning Parler app and website, with Trump as a frequent user, has the potential to reorient the social media landscape. (CNET, free)


Numbers.

  • 34%. President Donald Trump’s approval rating on his last full day in office, according to a Gallup poll, the lowest of his term.
  • 32%. Former President Harry Truman’s approval rating at the end of his term, the lowest on record for any president.
  • 41%. President Donald Trump’s average approval rating throughout his presidency, the lowest average for any president since Gallup began tracking approval ratings in 1938.
  • 81 points. The average approval gap between Republicans and Democrats throughout Trump’s presidency, the highest of all-time.
  • 68%. President-elect Joe Biden’s transition approval rating, according to a new Gallup poll.
  • 270. The number of suspects involved in criminal activity in and around the Capitol that the FBI says it has identified via tips, pictures and videos from the attacks.
  • 1. The number of days until Joe Biden is inaugurated as president.

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Have a nice day.

Electric car batteries capable of charging in five minutes have been produced in a factory for the first time, marking a major step forward to widespread electric car adoption. The lithium-ion batteries were developed by StoreDot, an Israeli company that says it hopes to deliver 100-mile charges in five minutes by 2025. The major obstacle now is that the batteries require much more powerful charging stations than are currently available, but it would be a huge leap forward for electric cars that can currently take as long as 30 minutes to recharge. (The Guardian, free)

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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