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Biden To Reveal His Emergency Pandemic Relief Plan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President-elect Biden laid out his plan tonight to deal with the pandemic, what he called a crisis of deep human suffering. It is his top priority when he takes office next week. The plan has a huge price tag - $1.9 trillion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: Now, I know what I just described does not come cheaply, but failure to do so will cost us dearly. The concensus among leading economists is we simply cannot afford not to do what I'm proposing.

CHANG: But Biden does have a huge sales job ahead of him with Congress. And joining me now to talk about that is White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe and health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Hey to both of you.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Ayesha, I want to start with you. You were in the room for the speech, and now you are on the bus back to your hotel. Can you just tell us what you learned tonight about Biden's plan?

RASCOE: It's a really big package - $1.9 trillion. To put that in context, the first bipartisan package in March, the CARES Act, provided about $2 trillion in aid. That was the largest stimulus package in history. This one would include direct payments of $1,400 to supplement that $600 that Congress passed in December. It would also expand and extend unemployment benefits and give aid to small businesses. Biden's also asking for $130 billion for schools to safely reopen. That's another one of his big goals for the first 100 days.

CHANG: Right. OK, and obviously, a big part of getting the economy back on track will be addressing the pandemic. Selena, what is in that part of the plan?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the vaccination rollout is kind of top of mind right now. We have these vaccines authorized, but the rollout has been slow. And many say in part that's because of the lack of federal funding and coordination up to this point. So Biden wants to put $20 billion into the vaccine distribution effort that's underway. That is a substantial increase from what state and local leaders have had up until this point, and it's a real change in messaging too. The Trump administration was saying just this week that states already had enough money for this.

There's also money for a lot of other aspects of the pandemic response - $50 billion for testing. Biden says he'll create a 100,000-person community health workforce. That's a campaign promise that's in here. And there's also money for viral surveillance, which would help the U.S. stay on top of new variants that are starting to be identified in the U.K. and in other places around the world.

CHANG: Well, Ayesha, obviously, it will be up to Congress to decide whether or not to approve this plan. How does the stuff that Biden wants compare to what Democrats and what Republicans have been asking for?

RASCOE: Yes. This plan includes some items that have been on the wish list for Democrats for a while. You know, one thing likely to be controversial is boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That's something Republicans have said in the past would hurt small businesses, but Biden had kind of a prebuttal for that. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: It includes much more, like an increase in the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. People tell me that's going to be hard to pass. Florida just passed it. As divided as that state is, they just passed it. The rest of the country is ready to move as well.

RASCOE: When it comes to the overall cost, Biden spent a lot of time talking about the divide between the rich and the poor and how the people at the top in big corporations must pay their fair share. He said that it's not right that people are going hungry, losing their jobs - and losing their jobs because of the pandemic.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, I mean, with Democrats set to control both the House and the Senate, will it be all that challenging to get Biden's plan passed, do you think?

RASCOE: It's not going to be simple. Yes, Democrats control Congress, but they have very narrow majorities, especially in the Senate, and they cannot afford to lose a single Democrat. So that gives moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has raised concerns about spending, much more power to possibly veto items. Biden officials say that he has been in touch with lawmakers and governors and mayors and that this package reflects their input. But you also have an impeachment trial that will likely be going on in the Senate. Biden has called on senators to work on both the trial and their other work, like this and confirmations.

CHANG: And, Selena, how critical do you think is speed at this point for getting funding out the door for the pandemic?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, speed is a real concern for state and local health officials I've been talking with. I mean, the vaccination rollout is happening right now. And sometimes, getting money from Congress down to local health departments really takes a long time. I think they're also reliving the experience of waiting eight months for the nearly $9 billion for vaccine distribution to finally come through. But I think the good news for public health departments waiting right now is that the money from the year-end package is starting to come down. Three billion dollars had to go out to states this month. And hopefully, that cash will help things scale up while lawmakers negotiate this next package, especially since Biden has the ambitious goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days.

CHANG: Well, you know, earlier this week, real quick, the Trump administration made changes to the vaccine rollout. Is the Biden team going along with those changes?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It's not yet clear from what we've seen from the Biden team so far. So to remind folks, the Trump administration put its weight behind expanding vaccine access now to people age 65 and above and people with underlying conditions everywhere across the country. And some public health experts think that a more uniform national approach might really simplify things because right now it's a total patchwork. Who's eligible? And people are really confused. But it's not clear from the Biden administration right now what they're planning to do. We are expecting more details on the vaccination plan tomorrow.

CHANG: And real quick, Ayesha, will this plan from Biden be the main focus of his first 100 days, you think?

RASCOE: He said it's just the start. He said he'll make an address to Congress next month, where he'll lay out a plan to invest in things like research, clean energy, infrastructure and on training people for the caregiving economy. So there is another big request coming up. It's going to be a lot on the agenda.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe and health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Thanks to both of you.

RASCOE: Thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.