Written by AAMER MADHANI Associated Press
(AP) — Leaving Donald Trump and his impeachment in the rearview mirror, Joe Biden is embarking on his first official trip as president to refocus Congress on coronavirus relief and to cement public support for his $1.9 trillion aid package.
With his prime-time moment — a Tuesday evening CNN town hall in Milwaukee — the new president is attempting to build pressure on Republican lawmakers to get behind the massive relief package that White House officials say already has broad public support.
The stepped-up public push comes with the House expected to vote next week.
“The vast majority of the American people like what they see in this package,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said as she previewed Biden’s sales effort. She added that the support in opinion polls “should be noted by members of Congress as they consider whether they’re going to vote for it or not.”
Biden’s trip to Wisconsin, a political battleground state he narrowly won last November, comes as coronavirus infection rates and deaths are falling after the nation endured the two deadliest months so far of the pandemic. The White House is also reporting an increase in the administration of vaccines throughout the country after a slow start.
But Biden has stressed that the nation still has a long road ahead as thousands of Americans die each day in the worst U.S. public health crisis in a century. The virus has killed more than 485,000, and newly emerging variants are complicating the response effort.
The Biden administration is trying to get enough Americans vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity” and allow life to return to a semblance of normalcy. His team also argues that the federal government must keep open the spigot of government relief to help people who are suffering economically and to get the country back to pre-pandemic employment levels.
But many GOP lawmakers continue to bristle at the price tag of a package that calls for sending $1,400 checks to most Americans as well as assistance for businesses, schools and homeowners and renters.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on Tuesday questioned why the Biden administration is pressing for more money for reopening of schools when some $64 billion earmarked for schools in previous coronavirus relief packages has yet to be spent.
His office pointed to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published Monday that said just $6.4 billion of the $128 billion the Biden administration is asking for could be spent by K-12 schools in 2021, with the bulk of the money to be spent in future years.
McConnell on Monday told The Wall Street Journal that going too big could hurt Biden politically in the long run.
“That will help unify our party,” McConnell said. “I don’t think many Republicans are going to be for very many of the things that are coming out of this administration.”
Biden has countered that going too small with the coronavirus package would be far riskier than going too big.
Psaki said, “I’m not sure what numbers Senator McConnell is looking at, but the American people have been clear what they’re looking for.”
For Tuesday night’s town hall, Biden was to take questions from a small audience of Democrats, Republicans and independents invited for a small, socially distant gathering at Milwaukee’s historic Pabst Theater.
Biden has mostly stayed close to the White House since taking office nearly a month ago, leaving the D.C. area only for weekend trips to his Delaware home and the Camp David presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland. In addition to his visit to Milwaukee, Biden is to travel to Michigan on Thursday to visit a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing facility.
The White House has been operating under strict social distancing rules, with most administration staffers working from home, mask wearing required throughout the White House complex and limits on the size and duration of in-person meetings in the West Wing.
In choosing Wisconsin for his first trip, Biden picked one of the most politically divided states to test his pitch that he has the ability to bring the country together after one of the most difficult periods in recent history.
The trip comes just three days after the Senate acquitted Trump in his second impeachment trial. Biden said little about Trump before and during the trial, insisting he wanted to let the Senate to do its job.
Ahead of the trip, the White House announced Biden was extending the federal foreclosure moratorium and mortgage forbearance through the end of June to help homeowners who are behind on payments due to the pandemic. The president on his first day in office extended the moratorium on foreclosures, first issued by Trump, until the end of March.