President Biden plans to sign the $1.9 trillion economic relief package on Thursday afternoon, ushering in an aggressive infusion of federal aid in a far-reaching effort to address the toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Biden had originally been scheduled to sign the bill on Friday, after it had been reviewed again and printed. But the president and his advisers, aware that low- and middle-income Americans are desperate for the round of direct payments that the bill includes, moved up the timeline to Thursday afternoon.
Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that the enrolled bill arrived at the White House on Wednesday night and that the president would sign it Thursday because they wanted “to move as fast as possible.”
But he added, “We will hold our celebration of the signing on Friday, as planned, with Congressional leaders!”
The president will sign the measure in the Oval Office hours before he is set to deliver a prime-time televised address on Thursday night, kicking off an aggressive campaign to inform voters of the benefits that are coming to them through the relief package.
The campaign will include travel by the president and Vice President Kamala Harris across multiple states, events that will feature a wide range of cabinet members emphasizing the legislation’s themes, as well as endorsements from Republican mayors, according to administration officials.
Mr. Biden is set to deliver the Thursday address just after 8 p.m. from the East Room of the White House, and said on Wednesday that he planned to “talk about what we’ve been through as a nation this past year.”
“But more importantly, I’m going to talk about what comes next,” he continued. “I’m going to launch the next phase of the Covid response and explain what we will do as a government and what we will ask of the American people.”
The address, which is taking place around the midpoint of Mr. Biden’s first 100 days in office, is shaping up to be one of the biggest moments for the new president since his inauguration.
It is taking place during a week of forward momentum for the new administration, not just from the passage of the stimulus plan but also from progress in filling out the president’s cabinet. On Wednesday alone, the Senate confirmed three of his picks: Merrick B. Garland as attorney general, Marcia L. Fudge as secretary of housing and urban development and Michael Regan as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
And on Thursday, the Senate is holding procedural votes for two more cabinet selections: Xavier Becerra for secretary of health and human services and Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico for interior secretary.
The White House’s decision to go out and sell the stimulus package after its passage reflects a lesson from the early months of the Obama administration. In 2009, fighting to help the economy recover from a crippling financial crisis, President Barack Obama never succeeded in building durable popular support for a similar stimulus bill and allowed Republicans to define it on their terms, fueling a partisan backlash and the rise of the Tea Party movement.
Mr. Biden starts with an advantage: The legislation is widely popular in national polling. And it will deliver a series of tangible benefits to low- and middle-income Americans, including direct payments of $1,400 per individual, just as the economy’s halting recovery from the pandemic recession is poised to accelerate.
After his address on Thursday night, which is expected to run under 20 minutes, Mr. Biden will headline a weekslong public relations effort. The White House announced Wednesday that he would visit the Philadelphia suburbs next week.
The economic relief plan that is headed to President Biden’s desk has been billed as the United States’ most ambitious antipoverty initiative in a generation. But inside the $1.9 trillion package, there are plenty of perks for the middle class, too.
An analysis by the Tax Policy Center published this week estimated that middle-income families — those making $51,000 to $91,000 per year — would see their after-tax income rise by 5.5 percent as a result of the tax changes and stimulus payments in the legislation. This is about twice what that income group received as a result of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
Here are some of the ways the bill will help the middle class.
Americans will receive stimulus checks of up to $1,400 per person, including dependents.
The size of the payments are scaled down for individuals making more than $75,000 and married couples earning more than $150,000. And they are cut off for individuals making $80,000 or more and couples earning more than $160,000. Those thresholds are lower than in the previous relief bills, but they will still be one of the biggest benefits enjoyed by those who are solidly in the middle class.
Tax credits for parents
The most significant change is to the child tax credit, which will be increased to up to $3,600 for each child under 6, from $2,000 per child. The credit, which is refundable for people with low tax bills, is $3,000 per child for children ages 6 to 17.
The legislation also bolsters the tax credits that parents receive to subsidize the cost of child care this year. The current credit is worth 20 to 35 percent of eligible expenses, with a maximum value of $2,100 for two or more qualifying individuals. The stimulus bill increases that amount to $4,000 for one qualifying individual or $8,000 for two or more.
Cheaper health insurance
After four years of being on life support, the Affordable Care Act is expanding, a development that will largely reward middle-income individuals and families, since those on the lower end of the income spectrum generally qualify for Medicaid.
Because the relief legislation expands the subsidies for buying health insurance, a 64-year-old earning $58,000 would see monthly payments decline to $412 from $1,075 under current law, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
A rescue for pensioners
One of the more contentious provisions in the legislation is the $86 billion allotted to fixing failing multiemployer pensions. The money is a taxpayer bailout for about 185 union pension plans that are so close to collapse that without the rescue, more than a million retired truck drivers, retail clerks, builders and others could be forced to forgo retirement income.
The legislation gives the weakest plans enough money to pay hundreds of thousands of retirees their full pensions for the next 30 years.
The House on Thursday approved a pair of bills that would expand and strengthen background checks for gun purchasers, as Democrats pushed past Republican opposition to advance major gun safety measures after decades of congressional inaction.
In votes that fell largely along party lines, the House passed legislation that would require background checks for all gun buyers and extend the time given to the F.B.I. to vet buyers flagged by the national instant check system.
Despite being widely popular with voters, the measures face what is expected to be insurmountable opposition in the Senate, where Republicans have resisted imposing any limits on guns, including stricter background-check requirements.
The House voted 227-203 to approve the universal background check measure. The vote was 219-210 to pass a second one giving federal law enforcement more time to vet gun purchasers.
Both pieces of legislation are aimed at addressing gaps in existing gun laws.
The measure passed on Thursday would require purchasers shopping for firearms online or at gun shows to have their backgrounds vetted before they could receive a weapon. They are not currently required to do so, although in-person purchasers, who make up the majority of such transactions, are.
The second bill addresses what is known as the “Charleston loophole,” which restricts to three days the time the F.B.I. has to conduct a background check, allowing many purchases to proceed without them. The provision allowed Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine people in 2015 at a historically Black church in Charleston, S.C., to buy a handgun even though he should have been barred from purchasing the weapon. The bill would extend the amount of time the F.B.I. has to complete a check for an additional week, to 10 days.
“Let’s not add more names to this registry of grief,” Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat, said, reading from a lengthy list of recent mass shootings and noting that they had sharply fallen in the last year. “Let’s not rely on a pandemic to do what we ought to have done so long ago. Let’s pass these bills and reduce gun violence the right way.”
Democrats first passed the legislation in 2019, shortly after they recaptured control of the House, making it a centerpiece of their agenda as they sought to capitalize on an outpouring of student activism in favor of stricter gun safety measures after a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. Polling then and now, conducted by multiple firms, shows that over 80 percent of voters support the legislation.
Last month, President Biden called on Congress to enact the bills in a statement commemorating the three-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting.
“This administration will not wait for the next mass shooting to heed that call,” he said.
Still, the bills approved on Thursday will join a growing stack of liberal legislation that is widely popular with voters but appears destined to languish in the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats must win the support of 10 Republicans to pass most major measures. It is part of a concerted strategy to increase pressure on Democrats resistant to eliminating the legislative filibuster while forcing Republicans to take difficult votes ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
“We are not going away until this legislation passes,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “We will meet the challenge to the conscience of the country, when it comes to the gun violence crisis in our country.”
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland promised on Thursday to protect the credibility of the Justice Department and Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties, delivering a short speech via video to the Justice Department’s roughly 115,000 employees about an hour after he was sworn in.
“I am honored to work with you once again,” Mr. Garland said, speaking from the department’s Great Hall. “Together, we will show the American people that the Department of Justice pursues equal justice and adheres to the rule of law.”
Mr. Garland’s speech was his first official act as attorney general. He used the moment to assure the rank and file that the Justice Department would no longer face pressure to attack the president’s enemies and protect his allies — a callback to the unyielding push by former President Donald J. Trump that diminished public confidence in the institution and led some career lawyers to resign.
“The only way we can succeed and retain the trust of the American people is to adhere to the norms that have become part of the DNA of every Justice Department employee,” Mr. Garland said. “Those norms require that like cases be treated alike.”
Mr. Garland was confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday in a bipartisan vote, with 20 Republicans joining all Democrats in supporting his nomination. He was sworn in as attorney general in a private ceremony at the Justice Department on Thursday morning, with a public ceremony overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris to be held in the afternoon.
Mr. Garland most recently served as a federal appeals judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, but he is best known for his 2016 nomination to serve on the Supreme Court, which Republicans refused to consider in a political power play that ultimately allowed Mr. Trump to fill the seat.
But Mr. Garland is also a longtime veteran of the Justice Department, having worked as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington during the George H.W. Bush administration and as a department official during the Clinton administration.
“When I walked in the door of Main Justice this morning, it really did feel like I was coming home,” Mr. Garland told employees who watched him via video and the handful attending in person, who sat socially distanced as he spoke.
Days before his inauguration, President-elect Biden was eyeing a $1.3 trillion rescue plan aimed squarely at the middle class he has always championed, but pared down to attract some Republican support.
In a private conversation, Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who is now the majority leader, echoed others in the party and urged Mr. Biden to think bigger. True, the coronavirus pandemic had disrupted the lives of those in the middle, but it had also plunged millions of people into poverty. With Democrats in control, the new president should push for something closer to $2 trillion, Mr. Schumer told Mr. Biden.
On Friday, “Scranton Joe” Biden, whose five-decade political identity has been largely shaped by his appeal to union workers and blue-collar tradesmen like those from his Pennsylvania hometown, will sign into law a $1.9 trillion spending plan that includes the biggest antipoverty effort in a generation.
The new role as a crusader for the poor represents an evolution for Mr. Biden, who spent much of his 36 years in Congress concentrating on foreign policy, judicial fights, gun control and criminal justice issues by virtue of his committee chairmanships in the Senate. For the most part, he ceded domestic economic policy to others.
But aides say he has embraced his new role. Mr. Biden has done so in part by following progressives in his party to the left and accepting the encouragement of his inner circle to use Democratic power to make sweeping rather than incremental change. He has also been moved by the inequities in pain and suffering that the pandemic has inflicted on the poorest Americans, aides say.
“We all grow,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, whose endorsement in the primaries was crucial to Mr. Biden winning the presidency. “During the campaign, he recognized what was happening in this country, this pandemic. It is not like anything we have had in 100 years. If you are going to address Covid-19’s impact, you have to address the economic disparities that exist in this country.”
A vast share of the money approved by Congress will benefit the lowest-income Americans, including tax credits and direct checks, of which nearly half will be delivered to people who are unemployed, below the poverty line or barely making enough to feed and shelter their families. Billions of dollars will be used to extend benefits for the unemployed. And child tax credits will largely benefit the poorest Americans.
“Millions of people out of work through no fault of their own,” Mr. Biden said moments after the relief act passed the Senate over the weekend. “I want to emphasize that: through no fault of their own. Food bank lines stretching for miles. Did any of you ever think you’d see that in America, in cities all across this country?”
More than seven weeks after President Biden took office, White House staff members are working from California, Puerto Rico, Texas and elsewhere around the country, a striking indication of the strange reality of building a new administration during a pandemic as well as the sharp shift from the Trump administration’s casual approach to dealing with the coronavirus.
Many Biden officials have never met in person with colleagues they interact with on a daily basis. Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, has met her chief of staff only on a video screen.
The setup might be inconvenient and somewhat anticlimactic for government officials who would normally be sporting coveted White House badges and establishing regular after-hours watering holes. But those who chose not to move during the coronavirus pandemic said it had also given them an outside-the-bubble perspective as they experienced firsthand a grim reality that many of the administration’s policies are trying to address.
Emmy Ruiz, the White House’s director of political strategy and outreach, said she became alarmed when she lost water after the deep freeze in Texas last month and immediately recognized it as a “huge red flag.” Because she lives near a hospital, her neighborhood had until then been prioritized in keeping power and utilities running. She called the nurses she knew at the hospital, where her son was born, “and they were painting a very dire picture,” Ms. Ruiz said. “The hospitals needed water, and in some cases they had to transfer patients, but the roads were ice.”
Ms. Ruiz relayed the concerns she was hearing in her neighborhood to Julie Chávez Rodriguez, the White House intergovernmental affairs director, who was in direct contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Security Council. Ms. Ruiz also reached out to local government officials and county judges to help put them in touch with the federal government for support.
The American Rescue Plan, which gained final approval from Congress on Wednesday, will pump $1.9 trillion into the economy.
The New York Times’s personal finance experts, Ron Lieber and Tara Siegel Bernard, combed through the bill to explain what it means in real terms to real people. Here are some of the questions they answer:
Two whistle-blowers on Wednesday accused Jeffrey Bossert Clark, a former Justice Department official, of politicizing the hiring process in the waning days of President Donald J. Trump’s tenure by improperly elevating an employee who was seen as loyal to the former president.
Mr. Clark, who headed the Environment and Natural Resources Division and was acting head of the department’s Civil Division, promoted an employee days before he left the department in January. The employee had previously worked on a case, Garza v. Hargan, that involved the Trump administration’s effort to bar pregnant teens who were in federal immigration custody from obtaining abortions, the whistle-blowers said in a letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general and to members of Congress.
Few career employees at the department had been willing to work on the case, according to the whistle-blowers’ letter. And the policy was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge.
On Jan. 12, Mr. Clark announced that the person who had worked on the Garza case had been hired to be an assistant director over two candidates who were more qualified, the whistle-blowers said in their letter.
The whistle-blowers’ letter was earlier reported by NPR.
The whistle-blowers claimed that the Civil Division changed its longstanding practices around hiring for that type of position in order to allow a political appointee to select the finalists. They said that Mr. Clark then engaged in “perfunctory” 15-minute interviews with each of the candidates before choosing “the one and only candidate who volunteered to defend one of the Trump administration’s most controversial policies.”
“Mr. Clark abused his authority by injecting himself into the career staff promotion process,” the whistle-blowers said in their letter. They called the hiring process “a sham selection process.”
Mr. Clark said in a statement that managers in the Civil Division sent him three candidates to interview, “each of whom they rated well-qualified.”
“I interviewed all three using the same process I had used for other positions,” Mr. Clark said. “I think it’s very unfortunate that the disappointed applicants would attack their own colleague’s selection. That candidate had strong leadership qualities and was the best qualified.”
Mr. Clark described the decision by the whistle-blowers to highlight that the lawyer who was promoted had worked on the Garza litigation as “a baseless attempt to cast aspersions.”
David Z. Seide, a lawyer for the whistle-blowers and a senior counsel at the Government Accountability Project, said in a statement that Mr. Clark’s “last-minute politicization of the D.O.J. hiring process” called for “immediate, close and transparent oversight and investigations.”
Mr. Clark made headlines in January for his efforts to help Mr. Trump overturn the results of the election, a plan that nearly led to the ouster of the acting attorney general and a mass resignation at the top of the agency.
Mr. Clark denied any wrongdoing and said that the discussions reported by The New York Times had been distorted by colleagues who had improperly shared them. The Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating the incident.
Before the House gave final approval to a $1.9 trillion stimulus package on Wednesday without any Republican support, Speaker Nancy Pelosi admonished Republicans for their opposition to the measure, declaring, “It’s typical that they vote no and take the dough.”
As if to make her point, Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, tweeted approvingly just hours after the bill passed about the $28.6 billion included for “targeted relief” for restaurants. His post did not mention that he had voted no.
Independent restaurant operators have won $28.6 billion worth of targeted relief.
This funding will ensure small businesses can survive the pandemic by helping to adapt their operations and keep their employees on the payroll.https://t.co/Ob4pRb9Xh4
— Senator Roger Wicker (@SenatorWicker) March 10, 2021
“I’m not going to vote for $1.9 trillion just because it has a couple of good provisions,” he later told reporters.
Mr. Wicker’s post received an unwelcome reception on Twitter, prompting thousands of responses, many of them pointing out that he had voted against the measure, known as the American Rescue Plan.
Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, wrote in her own tweet that she had “worked with restaurants in my district for almost a year to secure aid they desperately need,” adding, “Republican senators, including @SenatorWicker, rejected this critical aid.”
“Too many have closed & many more are suffering,” she said of the restaurants. “Just happy we got them help today despite his objections.”
Another tweet, from an account run by Senate Democrats, offered a reminder of how a certain vote was cast: “The American Rescue Plan will deliver for American families and small businesses — and Senator Wicker voted NO.”