Biden’s COVID-19 Agenda: Can the American Rescue Plan Pass Congress?

January 15, 2021

By Robert Yeakel, Director of Government Relations

As Washington D.C. prepares for the inauguration next week, the incoming Biden administration is hoping to hit the ground running and usher through a quick response to the COVID-19 economic and public health crisis that has gripped the country for most of 2020. 

It is not the first time that an incoming president has been thrust into action the minute he takes the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. – President Reagan in 1980 was faced with the Iran Hostage Crisis and stagflation, and President Obama in 2008 grappled with the recession. But how quickly a president can respond and move on to other priorities is largely subject to the whims of Congress.

Yesterday evening, President-elect Biden made his opening salvo by announcing a broad and ambitious legislative agenda focused on combating COVID-19 and providing additional economic relief to Americans hardest hit by the virus. The American Rescue Plan, as the president-elect’s team has coined it, is a $1.9 trillion legislative roadmap for Congress that includes both mainstay Democratic priorities like raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour as well as additional COVID-19-related economic relief that echoes much of the recent political fights over how Congress should address the pandemic: more direct stimulus aid, funding for states and enhancing the federal government’s role in getting Americans vaccinated.  

Apart from the hefty price tag, Republicans have already begun to signal their stark opposition to many items included in Biden’s legislative wish list. What remains is how quickly Biden and Congressional Democrats will be able to bring Republicans to the negotiating table to hammer out another round COVID-19 aid and what, if any, appetite Senate Republicans have for another foray into deficit spending.  

Time is of the essence for the Biden camp as his administration is hoping to avoid the logjam that Congress ran into this summer and fall. Negotiations in earnest for the most recent COVID-19 package that passed only a few weeks ago began in July, with most politicos assuming that a deal would be made before the annual August recess. But it took President Trump’s surrogates, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell all of five months before the negotiations proved fruitful – and even that aid deal almost fell apart after a last-minute change of heart by President Trump delayed his signature until after Christmas. 

For Biden and Congressional Democrats, the job won’t be easy, as they will need buy-in from Senate Republicans to get anything COVID-19-releated across the finish line. And prospects of agreement on an aid package of the breadth and cost that Biden announced yesterday seem less than plausible. But there are some items of consensus that may lead both sides to some smaller deal. 

However, getting to an agreement quickly has to be the priority as the last thing Biden or Democrats want is spending the first year of a new administration hammering out more COVID-19 relief, especially when they have their eyes set on much grander legislative ambitions.