Biden Calls for ‘Wartime’ Virus Fight as GOP Lawmakers Balk

President Joe Biden warned the nation to prepare for its darkest days in the yearlong pandemic, predicting that as many as 100,000 more Americans will die over the next month as he overhauls the federal coronavirus response and presses Congress for more aid.

But Biden’s plea for the nation to assume a “wartime” footing did not immediately sway a recalcitrant Congress, where Republican opposition to his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan only hardened. Even some liberal Democrats made clear they would not rubber-stamp the new president’s approach.

Highlighting the enormous stakes for his presidency, Biden unveiled the new administration’s 200-page blueprint for battling the pandemic on Thursday, his first full day in office. He emphasized that scientists and doctors would lead the effort -- a rebuke of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who sidelined many of the government’s medical experts and instead surrounded himself with advisers who encouraged his disregard for public health precautions.

“Let me be very clear -- things are going to continue to get worse before they get better,” Biden said. “The brutal truth is it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated.”

Biden Calls for ‘Wartime’ Virus Fight as GOP Lawmakers Balk

Sharp Reversal

In a sign of the sharp reversal of course in handling an outbreak that has now killed more than 400,000 Americans, the Biden team returned to center stage Anthony Fauci, one of the world’s best-known infectious disease experts. Fauci spent a whirlwind Thursday appearing first via video conference for a World Health Organization meeting in the pre-dawn U.S. hours and then delivering remarks at a nationally televised White House briefing in the afternoon.

“The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is and know that it’s, let the science speak, is somewhat of a liberating feeling,” he said at the briefing. He was referring to the shift in working for Biden instead of Trump, whom he had occasionally contradicted before the former president shunted him aside for more agreeable advisers.

In addition to his national strategy, Biden signed a series of executive orders that would impose testing and mask requirements for travelers, produce federal guidance to reopen schools and bolster domestic manufacturing of supplies to combat the virus. He was flanked by a new team of scientists and doctors, including Fauci, who he said would help the U.S. response from here on out.

Still, hurdles abound. Much of what Biden needs requires new funding, such as $20 billion for vaccines included in his stimulus plan. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that Biden’s proposal was “designed” to draw Republican support, though there is no sign of it so far.

While deaths from Covid-19 continue to mount, including 4,400 on Wednesday alone, the second-most ever, Fauci said there are signs the U.S. outbreak may have again plateaued. Case numbers and hospitalizations have declined from record highs in the past week.

But he added that the administration is concerned about new strains of the virus, particularly in South Africa and Brazil, that appear more transmissible and resistant to treatment and may even be less susceptible to current vaccines.

Fauci was ubiquitous in the early days of Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis, in March and April 2020, but before Thursday had appeared in the White House briefing room just once in the past nine months.

He was remarkably blunt about differences between the Trump and Biden administrations. “One of the new things in this administration is, if you don’t have the answer, don’t guess. Just say you don’t know the answer,” he said.

But he also allowed that the Trump administration had done several things right in fighting the pandemic, pushing back somewhat against Biden advisers who have lately claimed that their predecessors had no plan and left them a much worse situation than anticipated.

In his own address laying out the new U.S. strategy, Biden pleaded for Americans to wear masks, saying the simple precaution could save 50,000 lives through April. “The fact is, it’s the single best thing we can do -- more important than the vaccines,” he said.

He again lamented that face-coverings had become a political issue. Trump was almost never seen in public wearing a mask and frequently demanded that his subordinates and even news reporters take them off.

In Congress, meanwhile, early warning signs emerged that the president’s bid for a large and bipartisan coronavirus relief bill is failing. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican just re-elected in a state Biden won, joined Utah’s Mitt Romney in questioning the urgency.

“It’s hard for me to see -- when we just passed $900 billion of assistance -- why we would have a package that big,” Collins said Thursday.

Democrats are discussing making an end-run around Republicans. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told donors on a Zoom call Thursday night she had wanted to pass Biden’s Covid-19 relief legislation via the budget reconciliation process in two weeks, according to a person familiar with the comments. That process could eliminate the need for Republican support in the Senate by lowering the threshold for passage to a simple majority.

Biden’s team, meanwhile, is sticking to its approach.

“We feel like this package is designed for bipartisan support,” Psaki told reporters in a briefing. The director of Biden’s National Economic Council, Brian Deese, said earlier that “it’s critical that Congress act quickly on the president’s proposals and provide relief for families in need.”

Deese is planning to discuss Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion package with a 16-member bipartisan group of senators in coming days, according to aides familiar with the matter.

But even would-be allies expressed frustration to the new administration. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, complained to Deese on a meeting with the U.S. Conference of Mayors that cities felt left out of the federal response.

“I just can’t tell you enough,” she said. “Your success depends on us, and our success depends on you.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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