Biden acts on COVID relief while awaiting action in Congress

As he waits for Congress to act on his proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, President Biden signed two executive orders Friday meant to provide stopgaps to Americans suffering from economic hardships due to the pandemic.

“I don’t believe the people of this country just want to stand by and watch their friends, neighbors, co-workers, fellow Americans go hungry, lose their homes, lose their sense of dignity and hope and respect,” Biden said, speaking from the White House. “I don’t believe that, especially in the middle of a pandemic that’s so weakened and wreaked so much havoc and caused so much pain on America. ... So we’ve got to move with everything we’ve got, and we’ve got to do it together. I don’t believe Democrats or Republicans are going hungry and losing jobs, I believe Americans are going hungry and losing their jobs. We have the tools to fix it.”

Biden, who has generally avoided taking a position on the impeachment of his predecessor, suggested that he wouldn’t object to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s intention of putting off the trial until sometime next month. “I haven’t heard the details of it, but I do think having some time to get our administration up and running … the more time we have to get up and running to meet these crises, the better,” he said.

The House is expected to forward its impeachment resolution to the Senate on Monday, which means the trial could start soon after that.

Joe Biden
President Biden delivering remarks on the economy on Friday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

One of the orders Biden signed will increase weekly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, for about 12 million American families. There will also be an additional benefit to replace the free meals that students would be receiving at schools but aren’t due to remote learning.

Late last year, census data found 26 million Americans saying they did not have enough to eat. Food banks continued to be stressed, and 900,000 Americans filed unemployment claims last week, with 16 million still relying on some sort of jobless benefits plan.

The president added that with interest rates low, it made sense to turn to deficit spending to strengthen the economy for the long term and prevent an extended downward spiral.

“We cannot, will not let people go hungry,” Biden said. “We cannot let people be evicted because of nothing they did themselves. ... It’s not just to meet the moral obligation to treat our fellow Americans with the dignity and respect they deserve — this is an economic imperative: a growing economic consensus that we must act decisively and boldly to grow the economy for all Americans, not just for tomorrow but in the future.”

Volunteers from the Los Angeles Food Bank
Volunteers from the Los Angeles Food Bank help load boxes of food into vehicles on Thursday. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden will also be calling on the Treasury Department to redouble efforts to get stimulus checks — both the $1,200 ones passed last March and the $600 ones passed in December — to the some 8 million Americans who have yet to receive them. In the proposed legislation, many Americans would also receive an additional $1,400 stimulus benefit.

“We’re going to finish the job of getting $2,000 in direct payments to folks,” Biden said. “Six hundred dollars, which was already passed, is simply not enough if you still have to choose between paying rent and putting food on the table.”

Biden said he would also expand workers’ rights, including the right to draw unemployment benefits if they quit a job because they believe it is unsafe, stating, “No one should have to choose between their livelihood and their own health or the health of their loved ones in the middle of a deadly pandemic.”

Additionally, the president is rescinding an executive order from his predecessor that made it more difficult for federal workers to collectively bargain and easier for them to be fired. Biden also ordered the administration to begin preparing for a minimum wage for federal jobs and contractors of $15 per hour, a step toward his stated goal of eventually implementing that as a nationwide minimum wage.

In his first round of executive orders, signed Wednesday hours after taking office, Biden also extended a partial federal eviction moratorium and a pause on student loan payments, which he noted could be extended further. Included in his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan proposal — which is already receiving pushback from Republicans — are $400-per-week supplemental unemployment, funding for vaccine distribution, money for state and local governments, expanded paid leave and more funding to safely reopen schools.

Biden also cited the need for a rental assistance plan to help avoid the public health fallout from mass evictions and the economic repercussions of landlords losing months of rental income.


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