President-elect Joe Biden joined congressional Democratic leaders on Thursday and demanded a new economic relief package to address the dramatically worsening coronavirus pandemic before the end of the year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) flatly rejected such a proposal, while Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) implored both sides to begin negotiating as the virus appeared to be sending a new shudder through the U.S. economy.
There have been more than 100,000 new cases each day for the past nine days, including more than 150,000 on Thursday. The crush is leading a number of state and local leaders to pause or reverse reopening plans. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a stay-at-home advisory for the nation’s third-largest city Thursday and asked residents to cancel Thanksgiving plans. Maryland has recently issued its own new restrictions, and other jurisdictions have signaled they could invoke similar moves. Biden campaigned on stringent policy measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but Trump has not weighed in at all.
After rallying earlier in the week amid optimism about a new vaccine, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 317 points, or 1 percent, amid new worries.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell on Thursday said Congress could need to provide more economic relief to help sustain growth, though he didn’t endorse a specific proposal.
“The path forward is going to be challenging for a number of reasons,” he said, speaking on a virtual panel hosted by the European Central Bank. “My sense is that we will need to do more and that Congress may need to do more as well.”
And Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Biden’s presidential win and participate in a normal transition process seemed likely to stall the federal response even more, depriving Biden and his team of some of the resources they could use to put a quick response in place.
Democrats have pushed for a stimulus package that would exceed $2 trillion since this summer, and before the election Trump said he would support something even more substantial. The president tweeted incessantly about the need for a giant economic relief bill before the Nov. 3 election but he has been silent on the matter since.
Biden discussed the matter Thursday on a phone call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). In a joint readout following the call, the Democrats said they had talked about “the urgent need for the Congress to come together in the lame duck session on a bipartisan basis to pass a bill that provides resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” including relief for families and businesses and support for state and local governments.
At a separate news conference, Pelosi and Schumer insisted that Biden’s election win constitutes a mandate for their demands for an enormous new relief bill, particularly given how coronavirus case numbers are skyrocketing.
“They’re engaged in an absurd circus right now refusing to accept reality … making it even harder to address the massive health and economic crisis that we are facing,” Pelosi said at a joint news conference with Schumer at the Capitol.
The economy contracted sharply earlier this year when the coronavirus struck the United States, particularly in March and April. The U.S. economy has partially recovered, though millions of Americans remain unemployed. But this new spike in cases and deaths has caught Washington mostly flat-footed, particularly as Trump has soured on many of his health advisers and he continues to refuse to accept the results of last week’s election.
Nor has Trump acknowledged the recent surge in cases on his Twitter feed, which is his primary method of communicating at the present time. On Oct. 28, he predicted that after the election the “talk will be how low the death rate is, plenty of hospital rooms, & many tests of young people.”
In fact, the death rate is climbing rapidly, and hospitals are nearing capacity in a number of places, with parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and multiple other states scrambling to deal with the surge.
Democrats have called for a wide-ranging bill that would extend new unemployment benefits, send another round of $1,200 checks to American households, provide more small business aid, money for states and cities, and expand access to testing, among other things. Cases are rising so rapidly in some parts of the country that some local leaders are reinstating or weighing whether to reinstate business restrictions.
“The longer Senate Republicans are playing this sad game is the longer they are denying families much needed relief from the covid health and economic crisis,” Schumer said.
McConnell and other top GOP leaders have declined to acknowledge Biden won the election, instead arguing that Trump has the right to pursue the legal avenues available to him.
The election also has not changed the GOP’s views on economic relief. Congressional Republicans have long rejected a relief bill along the lines of the $2 trillion package Pelosi and Schumer are seeking.
Instead, McConnell has said that third-quarter economic news showing the unemployment rate has dropped makes a case for a smaller relief package.
McConnell on Thursday rejected Pelosi and Schumer’s call for a big economic relief bill.
“My view is the level at which the economy is improving further underscores that we need to do something at about the amount that we put on the floor in September and October,” he said, referring to a roughly $500 billion package Democrats blocked. “I gather [Pelosi and Schumer] are looking at something dramatically larger. That’s not a place I think we’re wiling to go. But I do think there needs to be another package."
Behind the scenes, no negotiations are happening whatsoever, according to aides in both parties. That means it’s highly unlikely that an economic relief deal will come together during the lame duck session, and it would become the first order of business for Biden once he takes office on Jan. 20.
Congress has not acted to provide any relief since approving $3 trillion in aid in the spring. It appears that Americans will have to continue to wait. The economy continues to strain. Another 709,000 Americans filed new unemployment claims last week, a level that remains elevated and higher than any period before the pandemic began.
Congress is confronting a Dec. 11 deadline when government funding will expire, and lawmakers are at work on a spending package to forestall a government shutdown. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said Thursday he would like to see some covid relief measures attached to the spending bill — but that seems unlikely if Republicans and Democrats remain far apart.
Shelby said he spoke with Pelosi on Wednesday about spending bills, “And I also mentioned a smaller targeted stimulus bill. Well she’s got, her view is a bigger one, you know, so I don’t know,” Shelby said.
"As far as the big package for everything like that Democrats were doing over in the House, that’s not going anywhere,” Shelby said.
Collins, a moderate who defied expectations by winning reelection in Maine and is one of a small handful of Senate Republicans who has congratulated Biden on his victory, called on Democrats to join Republicans in hashing out a deal.
“We need another covid relief bill,” Collins told reporters, ticking off needs including for small businesses, schools, health care providers, airlines and bus lines, testing and more. “We need to keep making the investments,” she said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) blamed the stalemate on Pelosi, accusing her of playing politics in refusing to agree to modest relief measures such as repurposing unspent small business funds.
“The only thing that’s standing in the way in my view is Speaker Pelosi,” McCarthy said at a news conference. “People need some relief and we can provide it.”
Rachel Siegel and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.