WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District was the only congressional Democrat to vote against the vehicle for a party-line coronavirus relief package as President Joe Biden laid out his case Friday for moving fast and without Republicans, if necessary.
The stakes for the county and economy were amplified on Friday morning by the release of the government’s jobs report for January, which showed that hiring had stalled to a pace that could hinder a return to full employment for several years. Some 406,000 people left the labor force last month as deaths from the pandemic have surged.
“A lot of folks are losing hope,” Biden said in a speech at the White House. “I believe the American people are looking right now to their government for help, to do our job, to not let them down.”
The jobs report landed shortly after Senate Democrats cast a decisive vote to muscle the COVID relief plan through the chamber without Republican support, a step toward final approval next month. Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, her first.
Following Senate approval, the House passed the measure 219-209 on Friday without a Republican vote. Golden, a second-term congressman from a district won twice by former President Donald Trump, has argued $160 billion for vaccine distribution should be released before his party moves on with the party-line process.
“We can quickly pass a bipartisan funding bill to get more shots in arms now by setting up community vaccination centers and mobile vaccination units, deploying thousands of public health workers, and giving states more resources to distribute vaccines,” Golden said in a statement after a moderate group of lawmakers joined his call for vaccine money.
The coronavirus aid package will now work its way through congressional committees with the goal of finalizing additional relief by mid-March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires. It’s an aggressive timeline that will test the ability of the new administration and Congress to deliver.
The push for stimulus comes amid new signs of a weakening U.S. economy. Employers added just 49,000 jobs in January, after cutting 227,000 jobs in December, the Labor Department said Friday. Restaurants, retailers, manufacturers and even the health care sector shed workers last month, meaning that private employers accounted for a meager gain of 6,000 jobs last month.
Biden’s speech solidified a marked shift in tone and strategy for a president who entered the White House pledging bipartisanship and met on Monday with 10 Republican senators — including Susan Collins of Maine — who back a slimmed-down $618 billion alternative. Biden concluded in his Friday speech that aid at that level would only prolong the economic pain.
The size of the package has been a concern for several Republican lawmakers and some economists. Larry Summers, a former treasury secretary during the Clinton administration, said in a column for The Washington Post that the $1.9 trillion package was three times larger than the projected economic shortfall. A separate analysis by the Penn Wharton Budget Model found the plan would do little to boost growth relative to its size.
The marathon Senate session brought test votes on several Democratic priorities, including a $15 minimum wage. The Senate by voice vote adopted an amendment from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, opposed to raising the wage during the pandemic.
The Senate also passed an amendment 99-1 that would prevent the $1,400 in direct checks in Biden’s proposal from going to “upper-income taxpayers.” But the measure, led by Collins and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, is ultimately symbolic and nonbinding and does not specify at what level a person qualifies as upper income.
Story by Josh Boak. BDN writer Michael Shepherd and Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.