President Joe Biden could soon sign the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package, which passed in the Senate over the weekend. Despite some GOP-approved amendments in the bill, no Republican senator voted for it. CBS News White House and political correspondent Ed O’Keefe joined “CBSN AM” with the latest on the package, an executive order on voting rights and more.
ANNE-MARIE GREEN: As Republicans in state legislatures across the country push bills designed to restrict voting access, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at preserving rights at the ballot box. He signed it yesterday, which was symbolic. It marked the 56th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday, where civil rights activists in Alabama marched for the right to vote. And they were attacked by state troopers. This comes as the president is on the verge of passing his first major legislative accomplishment, nearly two months into his job.
The Senate approved the COVID-19 relief bill over the weekend, clearing a major hurdle to get aid to those in need and lift up the struggling economy. So Ed O’Keefe is following the very latest from the White House. And we’re going to talk about it all. Ed, so the stimulus package passed in the Senate. But what notable changes were made to the Senate version of the package compared to the House– the House’s version?
ED O’KEEFE: Sure. I think the most practical bit of change certainly for viewers who may be contemplating whether they’re actually eligible for any of these benefits is that instead of the initially $400 in unemployment benefits that had been in this plan, it will be $300. And it will continue through the week of September 6. That is a compromise both in the price and in the length of time that these benefits will be offered.
There had been a debate late last week in the Senate about do we let it expire in late August? Do we take it all the way to the end of the fiscal year in late September? The compromise was that first full week of September after Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia pushed for some changes amid concerns that this bill wasn’t as targeted to those that are most in need as it could have been. There’s also a change that affects the taxation of those getting these unemployment benefits. The first $10,200 or so will be tax free.
Among other things, there’s a child tax credit of up to $3,600 per child. There are some changes to the Affordable Care Act, some of the biggest one since the Obama administration, another $34 billion or so to expand Obamacare subsidies to people who are now eligible because they’ve been laid off, don’t have health care, and are trying to get it. This money goes to help get those exchanges up and running and pay for more health care. Other relief for the restaurant industry, for concerts and sporting venues across the country that have been shuttered by the pandemic, and, of course, the hundreds of billions of dollars in direct relief to cities and states and to prop up vaccination testing– or vaccination centers and COVID testing locations across the country. All of that relief started to begin– expected to begin flowing by the end of the month.
ANNE-MARIE GREEN: End of the month, that was going to be my question. And you answered it. It’s good. So President Biden said that he wanted this package to be a bipartisan effort. Despite some GOP amendments that they included, not one single Republican voted for this bill.
So what did the president and Democrats actually gain by trying to work across the aisle to a certain degree? And what does this say for the Biden– Biden’s agenda moving forward? Because there’s–
ED O’KEEFE: Yeah, those are important.
ANNE-MARIE GREEN: –a lot of other major things that he’d like to happen.
ED O’KEEFE: Sure, no, those are important questions, because it’s unclear exactly where the White House would like to go next. But it’s going to be difficult to go anywhere if you can’t even get relief– or Republican support for relief that is backed by a majority of Americans. The White House likes to say that this is bipartisan legislation, because if you look at polling in recent days, a majority of Americans support it and a significant chunk of Republicans do as well.
So if Republicans and Democrats across the country who don’t have a vote in Congress but who are voters support it, then in their belief it is bipartisan. That’s a cute way of keeping this bipartisan. But in reality, there was no Republican vote. There’s not likely to be in the House either when they give final passage to this legislation tomorrow night.
So what does that mean for infrastructure spending, combating climate change, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and all the other big changes that the White House wants to make with congressional Democrats? We’ll wait and see. Some indication that infrastructure spending will be the next big to-do item because there is bipartisan support for it in Congress, a general belief that there’s got to be billions if not trillions pumped into the economy to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges, water systems, expand internet access to corners of the country that still don’t have it, and tackle some other changes related to climate change to help buttress communities that need better protection against natural disasters and whatnot.
But there will be a big debate over how to pay for that. Joe Manchin again, moderate Democrat who runs the energy committee, signaled last night in an interview he wants it to be 100% paid for. And that is a key element of this next debate. How would it be paid for? He supports raising taxes on wealthy Americans. So do many Democrats.
But, he says, he doesn’t move forward any of this unless there’s Republican buy-in. So you’d have to find Republicans willing to raise taxes of some kind to pay for a multitrillion-dollar plan. But they just rejected another multitrillion-dollar plan that didn’t raise taxes. So we’ll see when if there’s any Republican support to be had.
And if there isn’t, you can expect the Democrats will try to find a way to push it through on their own. But as the weekend’s negotiations demonstrated, there could be issues with getting enough even Democratic support to get these things passed.
ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Yeah, yeah. It sounds like a tall order. Let’s talk about the Voting Rights executive order signed yesterday. What does it mandate? And I guess what could its impact be? Could it really stop some of the more restrictive changes that we’re seeing at the state level happening across the country?
ED O’KEEFE: No, the easy answer is no, it won’t. And you used the word symbolic there in that he signed this, or signaled that he would yesterday on the anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March in Selma, Alabama. What this essentially does is tell federal agencies figure out how you can help promote voting across the country. Is there something you can do to update your website or more aggressively use your social media to promote voting when it’s time? OK, apparently you need an executive order to do that. But they will do it.
Perhaps the more interesting thing in here is that it instructs federal agencies to help find ways to help states with their voter registration programs and have some changes made to the website Vote.gov, which is a popular voter registration information website. The other thing that the administration is going to push for is allowing federal employees across the country the possibility of leave to go vote either on or before Election Day if they want to go vote early. A lot of employers now are giving people a few hours’ time off or even closing down for the day to promote participation in elections. I don’t think the federal government would shut down on Election Day, but agencies are going to perhaps provide some flexibility and allow people to go take two or three hours of leave to go vote. That would be a notable step and one designed, again, symbolically to encourage people to participate and to lower the thresholds to participation.
ANNE-MARIE GREEN: A good example for, I suppose, private businesses if they can handle something like that. It is International Women’s Day. The president is expected to sign two additional executive orders. These ones are going to be focused on gender policy. What can you tell us about them?
ED O’KEEFE: Yeah, so they’re establishing what’s called a Gender Policy Council that– I’m just looking at my notes to make sure I get this right. And that essentially will review concerns about gender bias, gender discrimination, but also extend to the ongoing push to look at systemic racism across the government and in federal policymaking.
The other interesting thing is that he’s going to ask the Department of Education to look at some changes that were made by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during the Trump administration to Title IX or the law that sort of dictates what goes on at colleges and universities across the country, and specifically the changes that Secretary DeVos put in place regarding those who are accused of sexual harassment in the college setting. They narrowed the definition of what sexual harassment was to make it harder on the accuser, many argued. And so the president is going to order a review of that.
Notably, the event here at the White House today where he will sign these and talk about them will include in attendance two female military officers who are set to be promoted to run two different branches of the military. I believe it’s the Northern Command and the Transportation Command, first time you’re putting– second and third time, actually, that you’re putting four-star generals in place who happen to be women. This was a promotion that had been put off by Defense Department officials in the later weeks and months of the Trump administration out of concern that the president would try to block them. Biden today making it clear he supports them. And they’ll be here at the White House for that event.
ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Wow. One more thing before we let you go– over the weekend, some senior White House administration officials traveled to the US-Mexico border. Do you know what the goal was for that visit?
ED O’KEEFE: Yeah, to figure out what exactly is going on there and what more the Biden administration needs to do to tackle the record influx of especially unaccompanied minors across the border. Record numbers for the month of February, usually you don’t see as large a number as you did during the year’s shortest month and in the winter. But it’s a signal that they’re coming from Mexico and from Central American countries now under the belief that with the Trump administration over, perhaps the immigration policies are going to be changed in a way that is favorable to getting those children across the border.
The Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, the president’s top Homeland Security advisor, several other officials who oversee immigration or Homeland Security issues, including an aide to the first lady, were part of this trip. It’s expected that they’ll put together some more detailed proposals for the president in the coming days. But this remains one of those urgent crises that they really don’t have control over and that they’re trying to get a handle on amid Republican criticism and friendly criticism from immigration activists that they’re not doing enough to stem the flow.
ANNE-MARIE GREEN: All right, Ed, thank you very much.