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Biden sticks with commitment to 'go big' on COVID relief, signs $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer
·5-min read

Last August, the man who succeeded Joe Biden in the Senate and led his transition team made a statement that troubled many on the left.

“When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare,” Ted Kaufman told the Wall Street Journal. “When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit ... forget about Covid-19, all the deficits that he built with the incredible tax cuts. So we’re going to be limited.”

Related: What the American Rescue Plan means for you

The message to progressives seemed to be that Biden, who had spent nearly five decades in politics as a relatively moderate and cautious Democrat, would act the same way as president. But as the COVID-19 pandemic wore on and Democrats won the White House, Biden reiterated an earlier commitment to going big on a sweeping relief package. And when Democrats flipped two Georgia Senate seats in early January and took control of Congress, a pathway to a broader stimulus measure opened.

On Thursday, Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law, the first major legislative achievement of his presidency. It passed with zero Republican votes.

The plan includes direct checks to many Americans and expands unemployment benefits and funding for vaccine distribution, but it also features a bold one-year expansion of the child tax credit that essentially serves as guaranteed income for some parents, and that Democrats hope to make permanent.

Biden said he was open to Republicans' input and votes, but he had no interest in cutting the size of the bill to appease them when it was possible to pass it with just 50 votes in the Senate.

President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
President Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on Thursday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

“The way I see it, the biggest risk is not going too big, it’s if we go too small,” Biden said in February.

“We’ve been here before. When this nation hit the Great Recession that Barack and I inherited in 2009, I was asked to lead the effort on the economic recovery act to get it passed. It was a big recovery package, roughly $800 billion. I did everything I could to get it passed, including getting three Republicans to change their votes and vote for it. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t quite big enough. It stemmed the crisis, but the recovery could have been faster and even bigger. Today we need an answer that meets the challenge of this crisis, not one that falls short.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has expressed similar sentiments, telling the Washington Post, “What happened in 2009 and ’10 is, we tried to work with the Republicans, the package ended up being much too small, and the recession lasted for five years. People got sour; we lost the election.”

Biden’s relief package had broad support, with recent polls showing three-quarters of Americans in favor, including more than 40 percent of Republicans. GOP lawmakers were united in opposition to the legislation but have largely focused their messaging on cultural issues, rather than economic concerns, since Biden took office in January.

While progressives said the White House did not push hard enough for a $15 minimum wage plank that was originally in the package, and fumed that fewer people than they’d hoped would receive $1,400 stimulus payments, their fears about Biden caving on the overall size and scope of the package ended up being unfounded.

Some on the left expressed concerns of a potential retreat when Biden met with a group of GOP senators on Feb. 1 at the White House, but their counterproposal, which was a third the size of the ARP, never gained traction.

“He reiterated that while he is hopeful that the rescue plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of Biden at the time. “The president also made clear that the American Rescue Plan was carefully designed to meet the stakes of this moment, and any changes in it cannot leave the nation short of its pressing needs.”

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, seated at a small table outdoors with the Washington Monument visible in the background and surrounded by others and American flags, celebrate after signing the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer celebrate after signing the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Another potential off-ramp to a smaller deal presented itself on Feb. 4, when Larry Summers published an op-ed in the Washington Post warning that Biden’s proposal was too expensive. Summers has loomed large in Democratic politics for decades, as a treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton and an economic adviser for President Barack Obama. But the day after his concerns were voiced, they were smacked down by the White House and congressional leaders.

Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in a CNN interview that Summers was “wrong in a pretty profound way” and criticized the op-ed from the podium in the White House Briefing Room. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about the op-ed following a meeting between Biden and House Democrats, to which she replied, “We didn’t talk about Larry Summers.”

Instead of drastically overhauling the bill to achieve Republican support, the White House spent the first two months of Biden’s presidency attempting to redefine the meaning of bipartisanship, first by citing a Yahoo News/YouGov poll that showed majority support for a number of his proposals.

“The president ran on unifying the country and putting forward ideas that would help address the crises we’re facing,” Psaki said in February. “He didn’t run on a promise to unite the Democratic and Republican Party into one party in Washington. This package has the vast majority of support from the American public. This is something that people want. They want to see it passed. They want these checks to get into communities. They want this funding to go to schools. They want more money for vaccine distribution.”

Psaki has reiterated that position repeatedly, including last week on the eve of the bill’s passage in the Senate, stating, “Bipartisanship is not determined by a single ZIP code in Washington, D.C. It’s about where the American people sit and stand, and the vast majority of the American people support the American Rescue Plan, including Republicans.”

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