WILMINGTON, Del. — President-elect Joe Biden is pushing Congress to approve billions of dollars in emergency COVID-19 assistance before he takes office, saying in a meeting Friday with the top Democrats in the House and Senate that such a package should be approved during the lame-duck session.
Biden held his first in-person meeting since winning the presidential election with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, hosting them at his makeshift transition headquarters in a downtown Wilmington, Delaware, theater.
Biden's new governing team is facing intense pressure to approve another coronavirus relief bill and come up with a clear plan to distribute millions of doses of a prospective vaccine. That comes as Biden is just days away from unveiling the first of his Cabinet picks, which are subject to Senate confirmation.
"In my Oval Office, mi casa, you casa," Biden, who sat with Schumer, Pelosi and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, all wearing masks and spaced out around a bank of tables, said during the brief portion of the meeting journalists witnessed. "I hope we're going to spend a lot of time together."
According to a readout of the meeting later released by Biden's team, the group "agreed that Congress needed to pass a bipartisan emergency aid package in the lame duck session," which is the period after Election Day but before Congress adjourns for the year.
It added that the "package should include resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, relief for working families and small businesses, support for state and local governments trying to keep frontline workers on the payroll, expanded unemployment insurance, and affordable health care for millions of families."
The sense of urgency in the meeting was echoed in comments earlier Friday by Biden transition aide Jen Psaki, who warned that "there's no more room for delay."
Pelosi said before meeting with Biden and Schumer that she'd make clear "the urgency of crushing the virus," and how to use the lame-duck session to approve COVID-19 relief and legislation that can keep the government funded.
But prospects for new virus aid this year remain uncertain. Pelosi said talks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP leadership on Thursday did not produce any consensus on an aid package.
"That didn't happen, but hopefully it will," she said.
Also Friday, McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, proposed that Congress shift $455 billion of unspent small-business lending funds toward a new COVID-19 aid package. His offer came after a meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
Psaki said Biden, Pelosi and Schumer had already begun working together on COVID-19 relief even before Friday's meeting.
"They're in lockstep agreement that there needs to be emergency assistance and aid during the lame-duck session to help families, to help small businesses," she said. "There's no more room for delay, and we need to move forward as quickly as possible."
Biden, Pelosi and Schumer also discussed the agenda for the first 100 days of the Biden presidency, "including taking aggressive action to contain COVID-19, providing resources to small businesses, families, schools, and state and local governments to power our economic recovery, and investing in the middle class," according to the readout.
President Donald Trump continues to block a smooth transfer of power to Biden, refusing to allow his administration to cooperate with the transition team. Specifically, the Trump administration is denying Biden access to detailed briefings on national security and pandemic planning that leaders in both parties say are important for preparing Biden to govern immediately after his Jan. 20 inauguration.
Biden is moving quickly to fill out his administration and could name top leaders for his Cabinet as early as next week.
Biden told reporters on Thursday that he's already decided on who will lead the Treasury Department. That pick, along with his nominee for secretary of state, may be announced before Thanksgiving, according to people close to the transition who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Meanwhile, Mnuchin denied on Friday that he is attempting to limit Biden's options for reviving the pandemic-damaged economy by ending several emergency loan programs being run by the Federal Reserve.
Mnuchin said the programs were not being heavily utilized and Congress can make better use of the money by re-allocating it toward small-business grants and extended unemployment assistance.
“We're not trying to hinder anything,” Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview. “We don't need this money to buy corporate bonds. We need this money to go help small businesses that are still closed.”
Mnuchin has argued that the decision will allow Congress to re-appropriate $455 billion to other coronavirus programs.
After initially objecting to the move, which will end the Fed’s corporate credit, municipal lending and Main Street Lending programs as of Dec. 31, the Fed softened its stance.
The Fed released a letter Friday from Chairman Jerome Powell in which he said the central bank would comply with Mnuchin’s request to close out the emergency loan programs and return the unused money appropriated by Congress to Treasury.
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