By Arul Louis
New York, March 11 (IANS) On the 50th day US President Joe Biden has been in office, Congress gave him two victories: the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package that was fought for and the confirmation of a key member of his cabinet, Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Biden is also buoyed by signs of a recovery after more than a year of the deadly ravage of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The biggest financial aid package since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the bill passed by the House of Representatives against total Republican opposition on Wednesday seeks to pull the nation from the depths of the coronavirus pandemic by infusing money into the economy at large and into the pockets of individuals.
Calling the bill a “consequential and transformative legislation”, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “This is a momentous day in the history of our country.”
Twenty Republicans joined the Democrats in the Senate to confirm Garland as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Despite the title of attorney general, the position is more similar to that of the home minister as the official will control agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Agency and the enforcement of laws.
The Senate also confirmed Michael Regan to a cabinet post as the administrator of the Environment Protection Agency. He is the first African American to head the agency.
The nation sees signs for optimism with 370,000 jobs coming back last month, the stock markets hitting record highs, nearly 19 per cent of the population receiving at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and students returning to schools.
The seven-day new COVID-19 infection rate has also come down from 254,000 two months ago to 65,000.
The RealClear Politics average of polls has Biden with 53.7 per cent job approval.
The immediate visible impact of the American Rescue Plan, as the aid package is called, will be direct payments of $1,400 to about 85 per cent of the people.
It will also lower some health insurance premiums, extend unemployment payments, give housing and utility assistance and provide monetary help to many families with children.
The Plan will provide small businesses, restaurants and entertainment venues with loans and grants, help schools, bailout states and cities, assist public transportation and fund infrastructure projects.
“This legislation is about giving the backbone of this nation — the essential workers, the working people who built this country, the people who keep this country going — a fighting chance,” said Biden, who will sign it into law on Friday.
He asserted that the package would “cut child poverty in half”.
Vice President Kamala Harris said, “It is a very important day for the children of America, the families of America and small businesses.”
Republicans put a united front against it both in the Senate last week and in the House on Wednesday asserting that it was too big and covered matters unrelated to the pandemic.
“It’s a laundry list of left-wing priorities that predate the pandemic and do not meet the needs of American families,” asserted Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Party leader in the House.
One of the Republican objections was over sending the $1,400 relief payments to convicted criminals in prison.
The only victory for the Republicans was the removal of a provision for a national minimum wage of $15 per hour, which they claimed would lead to higher unemployment as businesses would reduce their workforce.
The Senate parliamentarian — the legal expert advising the body — ruled that the wage portion could not be included in the bill if it was to be considered a part of the budget process requiring only a simple majority to pass.
Other types of legislation require 60 votes in the 100-member Senate where the two parties have an equal number of members and the vice president has the casting vote.
This is the third COVID-19 relief package. The first passed in March last year was claimed to be worth $2.2 trillion but ended up being only $1.78 trillion.
Another relief package of $900 billion was passed in December. The Democrats had proposed a payment of $1,200 to the people, but Republicans opposed it and settled for $600.
Then-President Donald Trump, however, said in a populist outburst that it should be raised to $2,000 and the $1,400 payment in the third relief package is to reach the amount he had proposed.
The confirmation was a comeback of sorts for Garland, who had been nominated for a Supreme Court judgeship by former President Barack Obama. But Republicans in the Senate had blocked it from being taken up for consideration.
The continuing investigations into Biden’s son Hunter’s tax issues will now come under him and he has said that he will not interfere with it.
(Arul Louis can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)
By Arul Louis