President Biden signed his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill into law yesterday, a move that will send $1,400 stimulus checks to many Americans, strengthen a wide range of social programs and step up investment in vaccine distribution. A few hours later, he went on national television to trumpet the achievement. And this afternoon, he celebrated it in a Rose Garden ceremony, joined by Democratic leaders in Congress.
“It changes the paradigm,” Biden said today, talking about the plan’s provisions to support low- and middle-class workers. “For the first time in a long time, this bill puts working people in this nation first.”
The bill passed without any Republican votes, depriving the Biden administration of the ability to frame it as a bipartisan effort — but also denying the G.O.P. the chance to reap its rewards in the realm of public opinion, if the legislation remains as popular as it is right now, according to polls.
Biden is planning to travel the country in the coming days to drive home the message to Americans that the legislation doesn’t just provide needed relief to families and businesses — but also that Democrats have delivered on a key campaign promise. Will it resonate? Come the 2022 midterm elections, will voters remember a law that was passed a year and a half earlier?
To understand how the policy interacts with the politics, I caught up with Jonathan Martin, a national political correspondent, to talk about how Democrats plan to marshal this legislative victory to their advantage at the ballot box next year.
Republican lawmakers in Washington were unified in their opposition to the relief package. But some, like Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, are already praising some of the programs that the bill has funded. Are any of those G.O.P. lawmakers regretting their opposition?
The popularity of the package isn’t lost on congressional Republicans. Some in the party believe it will become less appealing once voters realize how little of the funding is for direct Covid relief, but most G.O.P. lawmakers seem eager to change the subject to the growing number of migrants on the southern border.
It’s no accident that the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, is headed there on Monday (and not planning to hold events in opposition to the stimulus).
Biden has talked about learning lessons from 2009, when then-President Barack Obama signed a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill but resisted taking a “victory lap.” Democrats ended up suffering big losses in the 2010 midterms. How is Biden seeking to avoid a similar fate?
With a lot of events! I’m only half-kidding.
The White House is determined to flood the zone, as the saying goes, and dispatch all manner of figures, from the first and second families to cabinet secretaries, to promote the bill.
But the administration also hopes that the direct impact — namely checks in the mail — will make this measure a lot more tangible and therefore politically popular than the 2009 bill.
If Democrats were able to retain their razor-thin majorities in Congress, it would fly in the face of history — which tells us that a new president’s party hardly ever comes out on top in the midterm elections. Looking at the map in 2022, how good do Democrats think their chances are of defying that history?
Right now, they are optimistic because they’re united — certainly by Democratic standards! — and Republicans have obvious challenges with former President Donald Trump, who’s still liked by their primary base but is deeply unpopular with the broader electorate.
But Democratic leaders know how often there’s a backlash to the party in power, and they also know how tight their margins are in both chambers of Congress. Even the slightest pro-Republican breeze next year will lift them to the majority.
The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.
Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more
This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.
There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.
The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.
In his speech last night, Biden said the vaccine rollout was “truly a national effort, just like we saw during World War II.” After a presidential campaign centered on calls for unity and reconciliation, does Biden see this bill — which is supported by about seven in 10 Americans, according to polls — as an opportunity to actually hark back to an era of American history before political polarization took hold so deeply?
That’s certainly how he campaigned, and in the first days of his administration he seemed to be interested in pursuing bipartisanship. But when Senate Republicans came to him with a counteroffer on the stimulus that was about a third of the $1.9 trillion he had in mind, he chose speed and scale over bipartisanship.
The big question, now that Congress seems to be moving to infrastructure, historically an issue that transcends party lines, is whether Biden will make a real turn toward true bipartisanship and push congressional Democrats to put together a package that includes Republicans.
New York Times Podcasts
The Ezra Klein Show: How America’s Covid-19 nightmare ends
On today’s episode, Ezra spoke with Dr. Ashish Jha, a physician, leading health policy researcher and dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
Dr. Jha helps guide us through these next months of the pandemic, to help us see what he’s seeing. Don’t get him wrong: This isn’t over. But in America, things are going to feel very, very different in 45 days, for reasons he explains. Then comes another question: How do we make sure the global end to this crisis comes soon after? You can listen here.
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