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We are under no illusions that last month’s $900 billion COVID-19 relief package is enough to carry the country through the ongoing pandemic. But it also makes sense for lawmakers to get a better picture of how that relief is working or not working, and what remains unused before deciding where to go with the next round of relief.
So, it is not surprising that President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal has already met some resistance — not just from Republican leadership, but from some members of a bipartisan group of senators and House members who helped set the stage for the much-needed $ 900 billion compromise in December. Biden and his administration should view this pushback not as a roadblock, but as an opportunity to make good on his promise to bring both parties together to provide additional COVID relief.
Both of Maine’s senators are part of this bipartisan group, and both participated in a phone call on Sunday with the Biden administration to discuss the $1.9 trillion proposal.
“Following the briefing, it was not clear to me how the Administration came up with its $1.9 trillion figure,” Sen. Susan Collins said in a statement Sunday evening. “There was widespread agreement that additional funding is needed for vaccine distribution, and I mentioned my concern that rural hospitals require more assistance in this regard.”
In his own Sunday statement, Sen. Angus King said the call was a “cordial, bipartisan conversation focused on identifying the best policies to support the American people during this crisis — which is notable and important on its own.” He also discussed the call in an interview with the Bangor Daily News on Monday.
“The clear consensus yesterday was, everybody’s all in on the vaccine issue,” King told the editorial board.
If there’s such strong consensus around additional funding for vaccines — and there should be, given the concerns about vaccine production and distribution nationwide — then that would seem to be the logical place to build around.
King said the bipartisan group is trying to determine how much of the previous federal COVID-19 relief remains unspent before Congress moves forward with more aid. That’s entirely reasonable and responsible. The $900 billion package passed in December wasn’t an immediate infusion to the states. Some of that relief just became available in the past two weeks. And as Collins pointed out, that package was part of an overall federal COVID response that has exceeded $4 trillion.
“This funding is in addition to the nearly $4 trillion that Congress had provided previously for COVID relief,” she said. “It appears that approximately $1.8 trillion of that money has yet to be spent.”
To be clear, concerns like these make the case for caution and deliberation — not inaction. Republicans, like Collins, who seemed to have little problem further ballooning the federal deficit with tax cuts in 2017 should avoid using fiscal responsibility now as an argument against further COVID relief. And while Democrats should avoid pursuing a strictly partisan plan through the budget reconciliation process, no one should forget that is how Republicans passed those very same tax cuts a few years ago.
“If reconciliation is the first tool in the toolbox, it’s not going to go down well in terms of trying to build the kind of trust and working together that would be much more beneficial in the long run,” King, an independent, added Monday.
“Moving forward, I want our bipartisan, bicameral group to get together to determine if we can come up with a more targeted package that would address unmet needs that we are experiencing now as we fight this persistent pandemic,” Collins said in her statement.
“I prefer a bipartisan plan, even if it’s not everything the president has asked for, because I think that it ends up being more widely accepted, more widely accepted in the country, it’s less partisan by definition,” King said. “So that’s my preference, assuming that the Republicans are willing to discuss reasonable provisions and aren’t just simply being obstructionist.”
It should be Biden’s preference and Republicans’ preference as well. He and Republicans have both been using the word “unity” a lot recently. This is an early chance for everyone to turn those words into action. That doesn’t mean Republicans accepting Biden’s plan as written and it doesn’t mean Biden capitulating to all-out obstruction if it emerges. But for Biden, it does mean continuing to engage with this moderate group to answer questions, provide data, take input and adjust based on bipartisan feedback.