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What Biden's economic relief plan gets right (and how it might pass)

There's a lot to like in Joe Biden's "American Rescue Plan," and Congress might be able to pass it, even if Republicans try to block it.
Image: President-elect Joe Biden speaks as he lays out his plan for combating the coronavirus and jump-starting the nation's economy at the Queen theater
President-elect Joe Biden speaks as he lays out his plan for combating the coronavirus and jump-starting the nation's economy at the Queen theater Jan. 14, 2021 in Wilmington, Del.Alex Wong / Getty Images

Last month, federal policymakers completed work on the latest economic relief package, though everyone involved in the process recognized it probably wouldn't be the last. The $900 billion plan was designed to serve as a temporary lifeline for the winter months, with the expectation that the incoming Biden administration would soon unveil proposals of its own.

Last night, the president-elect did exactly that.

President-elect Joe Biden laid out his $1.9 trillion relief package in a prime-time address Thursday — focusing on a new round of stimulus checks to struggling Americans and an ambitious vaccine distribution plan to control the deadly pandemic. Biden will ask the new Democratic-controlled Congress to approve the "American Rescue Plan." A chunk of the funds —$416 billion— would help launch a national vaccination program with a goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans and reopening schools in the first 100 days of his administration.

The fact that the plan comes with a $1.9 trillion price tag -- as opposed to, say, a $2 trillion price tag -- is probably not an accident. During the debate over the most recent relief package, Republicans said they weren't comfortable with a proposal that reached $1 trillion, not for any substantive reasons, but because they thought it sounded bad. It's why the bill ended up being $900 billion. It also likely motivated Team Biden ahead of yesterday's announcement.

Regardless, there's a lot to like in the "American Rescue Plan." As the Washington Post noted, the blueprint is divided into three major areas: more than $400 billion for the fight against the coronavirus, including considerable resources for reopening schools; "more than $1 trillion in direct relief to families, including through stimulus payments and increased unemployment insurance benefits; and $440 billion for aid to communities and businesses, including $350 billion in emergency funding to state, local and tribal governments."

Naturally, there's no shortage of relevant details. Biden's plan includes, among other things, a minimum wage increase to $15 per hour, an increase in federal supplemental unemployment benefits, an eviction moratorium through September, rental aid, and a massive expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a respected progressive research and policy institute, published a review of Biden's blueprint and described it as "is a substantial, responsible plan that would significantly reduce the hardship that millions of people across the country are now facing and will continue to face for some time." The group's new president, Sharon Parrott, added that Congress and the incoming administration "should work quickly to enact legislation based on this proposal."

The word "quickly" stood out. The president-elect apparently wants to see Congress pass the "American Rescue Plan," or at least something close to it, by the end of February. That's just six weeks from now.

To understate matters, that won't be easy for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is differences of opinion among Democratic lawmakers about the scope and scale of the package.

And then, of course, there are Republicans to consider. Fairly soon, GOP senators will return to the minority, though the chamber will be split evenly, with each party having 50 members. Questions that were familiar throughout the Obama era are about to return to the fore, such as, "It sounds like a good plan, but how will it get 60 votes and overcome a Republican filibuster?"

With that in mind, the New York Times reported that Biden is eager to cultivate bipartisan backing on major proposals, "but top Democrats in the House and Senate are preparing to pivot quickly to a parliamentary process known as budget reconciliation in the event they can get only a simple majority in the Senate. Republicans used the procedure to bypass a filibuster and approve Mr. Trump's signature tax cuts in 2017."

The reconciliation process can get a little complicated -- we'll save a detailed overview for another day -- but it allows the congressional majority to pass spending measures in a way that cannot be filibustered.

That said, it's also worth emphasizing that the maneuver can basically only be used on one spending bill per year, and if Democrats use reconciliation to pass an economic aid package, it means they won't be able to use it on some other priority.

Watch this space.