The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden backs bipartisan stimulus plan, urging immediate action as economy stalls and virus surges

President- elect Joe Biden holds a virtual meeting with the National Association of Counties at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 4. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

WILMINGTON, Del. — President-elect Joe Biden injected himself more directly into congressional negotiations for an economic relief package Friday, encouraging fellow Democrats to get on board with a bipartisan, $908 billion deal even as some liberals blasted it as insufficient.

In his most direct call for immediate action since his election last month, Biden used words like “dire,” “dark,” “grim” and “real trouble” to describe the state of the economy amid a spiraling public health crisis.

“I’m not alone in saying this situation is urgent — if we don’t act now, the future will be very bleak,” Biden said Friday, responding to a weaker-than-expected jobs report that showed an economy losing considerable steam as the coronavirus pandemic rages unabated. “Americans need help and they need it now. And they need more to come early next year.”

The conflict over the long-delayed stimulus deal stands as an early test of Biden’s incoming administration, as it attempts to manage multiple crises while navigating a political minefield of entrenched acrimony between the political parties, and the emergence of competing factions within them.

Biden, who campaigned on the promise of solving such crises by harking back to an era of bipartisan camaraderie and cooperation, finds himself in the center of that minefield with Democrats and Republicans, both weary from months of failed negotiations and an outgoing president preoccupied with contesting the election results and settling scores rather than addressing America’s forefront challenges.

Heightening the sense of desperation was Friday’s jobs report, which showed that the country added 245,000 jobs in November, the slowest month of growth since spring. The report served as a warning that the economy is again under severe strain from the rapid spread of a virus that has killed more than 277,000 Americans.

Caught in the breach are millions of struggling Americans, who could be left without support from the government as conditions worsen over the winter and the widespread distribution of a vaccine remains months away.

The circumstances could create an impetus for a deal in Congress, as lawmakers from both parties showed an openness toward backing a stimulus proposal put forward by a bipartisan group of moderate lawmakers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had spent months holding out for a multitrillion-dollar stimulus plan that Republicans repeatedly rejected, said Friday she was willing to accept a smaller bill now in part because of Biden’s electoral victory.

“It’s less money, but over a shorter period of time, and we need to do it to save lives with the hope that much more help is on the way,” Pelosi told reporters Friday, promising that the House won’t leave Washington until a bill is passed.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not publicly endorsed the plan. But Pelosi cited her Thursday conversation with McConnell as she expressed optimism that “momentum” was building toward a deal.

Biden declined twice Friday to say whether he has spoken with McConnell, who has not yet publicly acknowledged the president-elect’s victory. In the past when asked the same question, Biden has said that he has not spoken with the GOP leader.

Claiming it would be “stupid” to talk publicly about how he negotiates with congressional leaders, Biden suggested Friday that he has been working behind the scenes to build support for an immediate stimulus package even as he plans to put forward his own proposal for more spending after taking office next month.

Asserting that the country would be in “dire, dire, dire straits” in the coming months if the federal government fails to act soon, Biden suggested that the worsening circumstances could force Republicans to negotiate.

“There’s a lot of folks who represent Republican districts,” he said. “They’re going to find their Republican neighbors are in real trouble as things get worse.”

But as he spoke, a movement against the bipartisan package was growing within the Democratic Party, with liberal leaders such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) coming out against the deal.

The $908 billion plan would provide hundreds of billions of dollars to jobless Americans, while offering funding for states and cities hit by declines in revenue as well as a new round of federal funds for struggling small businesses. It would provide smaller amounts of money, in the tens of billions, for a number of other critical needs, including schools, child care, hunger, rental assistance and other pressing demands.

The plan does not include another round of the $1,200 stimulus payments, something Sanders and other liberals have insisted is key to preventing more economic devastation.

“Tens of millions of Americans living in desperation today would receive absolutely no financial help from this proposal,” Sanders said in a statement Friday. “That is not acceptable.”

Asked about the stimulus payments and Sanders’s opposition, Biden said Friday that the current package “would be better” if the checks were included.

“I understand that may be still in play,” he said, before adding that the eviction protections and other benefits in the bill were key wins in a negotiation that required give-and-take from both parties.

“This is a democracy,” Biden said. “You’ve got to find the sweet spot where you have enough people willing to move in a direction that gets us a long way down the road.”

Some conservative lawmakers have also expressed their opposition to the deal, with Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) assailing it for devoting close to $200 billion in emergency aid for state and local governments. Conservative advocacy groups have begun mobilizing to pressure Republican senators into rejecting the bill.

“There’s widespread opposition among conservatives, particularly among our activists who are sick of Congress spending money we don’t have,” said Jason Pye, vice president for legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group.

For his part, President Trump has not publicly taken a position on the proposal, although he has run hot and cold on the idea of a stimulus bill.

The two most controversial elements of the deal remained the assistance for state and local governments, which is widely opposed by conservatives; and the liability shield that would protect firms from coronavirus-related lawsuits, opposed by liberals and cited by Sanders. The group of centrist lawmakers pushing the deal, led by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), has worked to reach a bipartisan consensus on both issues, but has so far released few details specifying how to do so.

Negotiators said they have an informal Monday deadline for reaching an agreement and releasing legislative text.

Biden has been in touch with key lawmakers on the Hill since before the election to discuss stimulus legislation, transition spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said. Biden sees the current legislation as a “down payment” that would be followed by “more relief” early next year, she said.

Throughout the week, as the deal emerged, Biden encouraged the talks while repeatedly stating that a package would be only a first step on the road to a broader economic recovery. He acknowledged that the current proposal was less than ideal.

“It’s not going to satisfy everybody,” Biden said, adding, “If you insist on everything, we’re likely to get nothing.”

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said the troubling jobs report and raging pandemic should encourage lawmakers to move quickly on the stimulus, even if it means Democrats accepting a smaller-than-desired deal.

“You’ve got tens of millions of Americans who are in panic mode,” he said. “Given the financial hit and blow to these households, they need help now — so sooner is more important than bigger at this point.”

Lawmakers face a tight schedule to take action as congressional leaders push to include the coronavirus relief effort with the spending bill needed to avert a federal government shutdown after Dec. 11.

Trump has shown only middling interest in engaging in the stimulus talks, instead stewing over his election loss and threatening to veto a defense-spending bill if it does not include language targeting social media companies that have angered him.

Some of the president’s aides acknowledged the significant head winds facing the economy in the months ahead — and urged action.

“There’s a train wreck coming, folks. Okay?” Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro, told reporters Friday, delivering a message to Congress. “And it’s your job to flip the switches so, so that the trains don’t hit.”

Other Trump aides praised the president for spearheading an effort to quickly develop a vaccine, whose widespread availability is seen by economists and health officials as necessary for a fiscal recovery. During a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Vice President Pence said Friday that a vaccine could be approved in a matter of days.

Speaking in Wilmington, Del., a few hours later, Biden said that his team has been underwhelmed by the Trump administration’s plans for distributing the vaccine.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be done,” he said, adding that “there is no detailed plan” beyond a high-level blueprint for getting vaccines out to various states.

Biden said he agrees with the general notion that first responders and people in nursing homes should be first in line to receive the vaccine. He added that Black and Hispanic communities have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, suggesting that these groups also might be prioritized.

And he hinted that he would try to build confidence in the vaccine by publicly receiving a dose of it.

Near the end of the news conference, a reporter noted that many Americans are wondering what Biden’s inauguration will look like amid the pandemic.

“So am I,” Biden quipped.

The president-elect said he wants an event that will follow coronavirus precautions and said that means it’s unlikely there will be big crowds or a traditional parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.

“My objective is to keep Americans safe and still allow people to celebrate,” Biden said.

Biden said there will be online components of the event and it will be in some ways similar to the Democratic National Convention, which interspersed virtual events, including videos from across America, and featured only a few in-person speeches.

Taylor Telford, John Wagner, Seung Min Kim, Eli Rosenberg and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.