President Joe Biden on Monday met to discuss COVID relief with a group of Republican senators led by Maine’s Susan Collins.

The talks are a worthwhile attempt to shift away from the hyper-partisanship of the last decade. However, the political path forward remains unclear.

But for the sake of millions of struggling Americans, and in the name of a faster recovery for all, we know where it has to end up — with substantial aid for the people hurt the worst.

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal includes that aid. There is question, however, whether the plan has the votes to pass the Senate, where without Republican support it would need all Democrats plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris to pass under budget reconciliation.

Democrats on Tuesday began moving forward with the plan under reconciliation, but leaders say they are still open to negotiating with Republicans.

If the president’s proposal loses any Senate Democrat, a compromise with Republicans may be necessary to get Americans the help they need and put the economy on more solid ground. The plan from Collins’ group could be a starting point for such negotiations.

But if the final package is going to make a real difference, the Republicans will have to come up substantially on what they’re offering.

At $618 billion, the plan from the GOP senators is about a third of Biden’s. While both proposals have about $160 billion in much-needed funding for direct COVID response, they differ in many important areas.

In the GOP plan, for instance, enhanced unemployment is $100 per week less than in the Biden plan, and it ends June 30 rather than Sept. 30. If passed, Congress would have to take up the issue again this summer, long before anyone thinks we’ll have the pandemic under wraps.

The GOP plan also includes no rental or mortgage assistance, even as millions of Americans struggle to stay in their homes, nor does it have any aid to state and local governments. It only provides $20 billion to help schools open safely, as opposed to $170 billion in Biden’s plan.

Without aid, many governments will be forced to layoff workers and cut services, compounding the pain to individuals and to the economy as a whole. Schools will be left short on safety, or will require more money from strapped communities.

And without adequate unemployment aid or housing assistance, low-income Americans already hit the hardest by the pandemic recession will be marginalized further, with long-term consequences for them and the country writ large.

Most of these folks have no safety net or family resources to weather a long bout without work. When one person suffers long-term unemployment, it is devastating for them and their families. When millions do, it puts a drag on the economy, holding us all back.

That’s the lesson from the Great Recession, when inadequate aid left millions of Americans to fall out of the workforce. The slow recovery that followed affected millions more, including an entire generation that entered the workforce during an economic slow down and has never fully recovered.

Congress cannot let that happen again. With interest rates at zero, there is little risk in government borrowing. It’s doubtful that spending will cause undue inflation. Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said so this week, as has the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office as well as dozens of economists.

No, the biggest risk is in not doing enough, and watching the recession linger on for years as temporary damage becomes permanent and millions of Americans are left hanging by a thread.

That’s not to say the president shouldn’t compromise, if that’s what it takes. Direct payments could be more targeted toward low-income Americans, as they are in the GOP plan, and the push for a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, unpopular with Republicans, could be held back for later.

And even if Democrats decide to pass Biden’s plan themselves, the president and Collins’ group should consider these negotiations a trial run for working together in the future.

But the focus now should be directly on the low-income Americans who have been hit harder than everyone else by the pandemic.

After months of hardship, many stand on the edge of a precipice. Congress must do enough to get them on more sure footing.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.