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Biden indicates a willingness to act on COVID-19 relief without bipartisan support

The Biden administration wants a $1.9 trillion COVID aid plan passed by Congress as a way to address issues related to vaccine distribution, and President Biden indicated Friday he's willing to move forward without bipartisan support. Brian Deese, Biden's lead negotiator with Congress on the COVID deal and the director of the White House National Economic Council, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As a way to address issues related to vaccine distribution, the Biden administration wants its $1.9 trillion COVID aid plan passed by Congress.

    President Biden indicated today he is willing to move forward without bipartisan support.

  • President Joseph Biden:

    I support passing COVID relief with support from Republicans, if we can get it, but the COVID relief has to pass. There's no ifs, ands or buts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president's plans come as financial markets are very much in the news.

    Wall Street closed its worst week since October. Major indexes were down again, roiled by concern over new strains of the virus and mainly by the frenzied trading of several stocks that impacted investors. The most widely watched volatility index is up by 37 percent this month.

    Brian Deese is President Biden's lead negotiator with Congress on the COVID deal. He is also the director of the White House National Economic Council. And he joins us now.

    Brian Deese, welcome to the "NewsHour." We thank you so much for joining us.

    This COVID relief package, as you know, comes after the Congress last year spent, what, $3 trillion in COVID relief. You're asking for $1.9 trillion. Even people who think, yes, there should be more money spent are saying this is just too much. It's more even than what the economic growth shortfall was in the last quarter of last year.

    How do you explain the dollar — the amount?

  • Brian Deese:

    Well, Judy, we're in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis.

    It's connected to the public health crisis that Dr. Fauci was just talking about, but it is unprecedented in scale. We just found out, yesterday, that, last year, the economy fell more than in any year since the demobilization after World War II.

    We also know that this crisis is uniquely affecting millions of people across the country. Thirty million people didn't have enough food to eat last week. And the unemployment rate among the bottom quarter of households, people working out there, is over 20 percent.

    So, this is an unprecedented crisis, and it requires a decisive response. And that's really the theory behind the president's plan. It's about getting the resources we need to get shots in people's arms, to get the schools open, to get parents back to work, and to provide a bridge of support to families, to businesses and others that are really struggling in this economy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, in that vein, one of the criticisms and comments one hears as much as anything is, why not target this aid more to people who are at low income levels, the people who will spend — most likely to spend this money, according to the analysis that's been done?

    It is reported, it's believed that some of this money would go to people, families earning as much as $300,000 a year.

  • Brian Deese:

    I really appreciate the focus on targeting, and it's important to look at what's in the president's plan.

    Unemployment insurance, extended out, goes directly to those people who've lost their jobs, those people in need and who are likely to spend it the most. Assistance to prevent evictions, assistance to prevent hunger, an additional credit to families with children. Kids have been really hurt in this crisis, educationally and otherwise.

    These are ways to actually provide that kind of assistance and target it to those in need. Support for small businesses. We have done a lot to help cushion small businesses, but we have seen in even just the last several weeks a number of sectors, like restaurants and bars, these are businesses, smaller businesses, less well-connected businesses.

    They need support, they need a bridge, so we can avoid that kind of economic harm. So, this is an approach that is targeted at those areas of economy that really need help, and also is underscored by the economic research that says actually failing to make these investments will mean slower growth, it will mean a longer trajectory back to a stable labor market, and we will be — we will all pay for this in end.

    So, this actually is a targeted response to the particular economic challenges that we face right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you mentioned small businesses, but, in fact, this big package, $1.9 trillion package, includes an increase in the minimum wage, something that many small business owners who arguably have taken a huge hit during this pandemic, don't want at this moment.

    They say this is the wrong time to do that. Are you prepared to peel off some aspects of this package that are meeting real opposition, especially from Republicans?

  • Brian Deese:

    Well, look, on the minimum wage, the academic evidence suggests that what you do with the minimum wage is, you can actually give a raise to almost 32 million workers, and you can do so in a way that doesn't have a substantial impact on employment.

    And a lot of those workers are actually people out there providing services in our economy, delivering food, cleaning buildings out there in — putting themselves in harm's way.

    But the president has been very clear. We are soliciting input. We are listening. We are trying to work and understand people's points of view. The one thing that he has been clear about, though, is the urgency of action. We do need to move, and we need to move in a holistic way, because, if the last 10 months have taught us anything, without decisive action, this is not a self-correcting recovery.

    This is not going to get better on its own, which is really why the impetus for the urgency here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other quick things, Brian Deese.

    One is, we heard the president say he's prepared to move ahead even without Republican support. If you go to the so-called budget reconciliation process, requiring a simple majority, that would presumably take more time to do.

    What cost does that mean then in terms of getting the aid that's needed out there for the pandemic, for vaccine distribution and so forth?

  • Brian Deese:

    Well, it's a great question.

    We need to move quickly. We need to move quickly for the support for vaccines, as well as for unemployment insurance, school reopening, for a number of reasons. So, we're going to work with Congress to find a pathway to allow us to move quickly and the right budgetary process to do so.

    But, as part of that process, under any scenario, there's going to be opportunities for members of Congress, Democrats, Republicans to express their views, to raise issues and move forward.

    And, ultimately, the question will be, are people actually ready to vote for a package that would get the virus under control and put a floor under the economic crisis we're in?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, just very quickly, Brian Deese, you have worked on Wall Street. You know what happened during this past week in the financial markets, a lot of volatility, big investors affected by what a number of smaller traders were doing.

    The bottom line is, is it time for the kind of regulation that Senator Elizabeth Warren and others are calling for? Is the Biden administration looking at imposing some kind of regulation on this kind of — to reduce this kind of volatility?

  • Brian Deese:

    Well, look, the Treasury Department, the SEC are monitoring activity in the markets.

    I think our focus now is in the real economy, where we're seeing on Main Street and across the country more than a million people filed for unemployment insurance this week. And, as I mentioned, there are millions of families struggling to put food on the table.

    So, that's really our focus right now, and our focus in passing this rescue plan is to try to address the crisis we have got on Main Street and hopefully bring this economy back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Brian Deese, thank you very much, the chair of the president's National Economic Council.

    We appreciate it.

  • Brian Deese:

    Thank you.

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