Democrats race for Covid aid that could still reach Americans late

Democrats race for Covid aid that could still reach Americans late

Democratic leaders are racing to get President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic aid plan through Congress, fulfilling one of his biggest early promises. But even if they hit their ambitious targets, major parts of the bill may already be too slow for many Americans walloped by the virus.

That’s because some of the largest pieces of the aid will not hit U.S. households for at least another month — and in some cases longer — given the host of new bureaucratic holdups that are bound to follow congressional action. The lag is expected to be most painful for the millions of jobless Americans facing a drop-off in their $300 a week boost in unemployment payments, even if Congress can stay on track and get its Covid aid measure to Biden’s desk by mid-March.

Delays in the delivery of federal economic aid are a Washington fixture, but their effect on Biden’s plan comes with particularly high stakes. The new president is devoting significant political capital to promoting the package as he tries to heal widespread anguish among Americans after nearly a year of pandemic disruption, making every day count as his White House pushes for benefits to get approved and distributed.

Democrats are aware that their current plans to push the bill through at what qualifies as top speed for Congress may not be enough to assuage anxious voters.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said constituents have been approaching him at the grocery store, complaining about the disconnect between congressional action and unemployment aid making it to their accounts because state unemployment offices are swamped.

“After a really long political season, that went all the way into 2021, people just want results,” Wyden said in a phone interview from Oregon, advocating for his proposals to create a uniform system for unemployment aid and tie jobless support to economic conditions “so you eliminate these cliffs.”

While extra unemployment benefits don’t lapse until March 14, a gap in payments is already inevitable in much of the country because it takes states time to process the new federal infusion, which would be increased to $400 a week under Biden’s plan. Other aid the proposal would provide — like hundreds of dollars in monthly help for families with children and subsidized Wi-Fi for kids in virtual classes — is expected to take months longer to distribute.

For proof of the political consequences that can bedevil a signature economic plan seen as insufficient, Biden need look no further than his own time as vice president. The Obama administration’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill, signed into law on Feb. 17 of the new president’s term, was later dinged as too small. But one veteran of that push said the best thing Biden’s team can do to is keep pushing.

“There’s no instant gratification when it comes to Congress and big legislative packages,” said Ben LaBolt, a top White House press aide during the Obama administration who’s now a partner at the consulting group Bully Pulpit Interactive. “The best thing President Biden can do is to be shown advocating for this every single day.”

The majority party’s aspiration to get Covid aid signed into law by the second week of March may prove too ambitious because it hinges on a trouble-free journey through the Senate, where the debate has already divided Democrats on issues like sending stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The reconciliation process Democrats are using to get the package through the 50-50 Senate with a simple majority could also spur delays, since parliamentary fouls would require complicated rewrites to make the bill text work under the special budget rules.

The weeks that Congress will need to wrap up work on the aid package, however, will pale in comparison to the administrative rigmarole that’s expected to delay some of the bill’s tangible assistance for months after it gets signed into law.

The majority of the more than 18 million Americans who remain on unemployment insurance are set to lose their benefits over several weeks beginning March 14, with delays of weeks or months for many of them as some states reprogram antiquated unemployment systems to get the money out to jobless workers.

Congress needs to act two to three weeks before an unemployment cliff to head off that gap, experts estimate. Given how long it takes the Labor Department to issue guidance and then for states to verify workers’ eligibility, that window of opportunity is expected to close by month’s end, long before the stimulus is signed into law.

State unemployment offices are already processing more than 800,000 new jobless claims per week. “It’s just a madhouse,” said Elizabeth Pancotti, policy director at the pro-worker group Employ America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *