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Pandemic Relief: Biden Adviser Says The Danger Is Doing Too Little

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When a group of Republican senators left the White House last evening, they stood a moment for the cameras. One Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, said they just had a useful meeting with President Biden about the next round of COVID relief.

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SUSAN COLLINS: All of us are concerned about struggling families, teetering small businesses and overwhelmed health care system, getting vaccines out into people's arms and strengthening our economy and addressing the public health crisis that we face.

INSKEEP: Well, now that they all agree on that, there's just the matter of how much federal money to commit to helping. And there, the two sides have a small difference of more than $1 trillion. Biden needs these 10 senators, by the way, if he wants a bipartisan COVID agreement to pass Congress without a filibuster, although Democrats also have an alternative way to get a bill through the Senate without them.

So let's talk this through with Jared Bernstein, a longtime adviser to President Biden, now on his Council of Economic Advisers. Mr. Bernstein, welcome back to the program.

JARED BERNSTEIN: Well, thank you for inviting me. Good to start the day with you.

INSKEEP: Jen Psaki, the press secretary, says that the president will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment. So does the Republican proposal meet the moment?

BERNSTEIN: Well, that's precisely what these exchanges are about. And certainly, the proposal that the president has put forth, the American Rescue Plan, as you mentioned, goes a lot further than the plan that they've put forth. But I agreed with everything Susan Collins just said. If - it sounds like we're really trying to hit the same place. We're heading in the same direction. And that's a matter of responding to this urgent dual crisis - both in terms of health and the nation's economy. Now, how we get there and the different magnitudes of the plan, that's, of course, the substance of these exchanges. I will say, Steve, that this plan, the American Rescue Plan that the president has put forth is calibrated with the urgency and the magnitude to most effectively meet the moment.

INSKEEP: Given that, though, is it likely that in the end you split the difference, even though the difference is enormous? Biden says $1.9 trillion. The Republicans say $600 billion. Go about halfway and...

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, I would say a pretty firm no to that in the following sense - it's actually a mistake - I know we like to do it; we can't help ourselves - to think about this in terms of top-line numbers. We come in at X; they come in at Y.

INSKEEP: Right.

BERNSTEIN: The way to think about this is what will it take to finally put this crisis behind us, to open the schools so that kids can get back to learning and so that we can offset the very high, steep, I'd even say dangerous costs of inaction. Those costs have to do with kids missing school and having a permanent ding to their earnings over their lifetime, small businesses. Child poverty could be cut by half in our plan. Controlling the virus. Distributing the vaccine. If you think about what it costs to accomplish these policy goals and you tote that up, you get to the kinds of numbers that we've been putting forth. And that's the way to think about it. Not so much, you know, your top line versus our top line, but what will it cost to finally put this urgent crisis behind us and to avoid the steep costs of inaction.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you're framing it that way, Mr. Bernstein, because the Republican senators maintain that they also want to meet you on that ground of, let's look what's really necessary, and we'll change our numbers if you show us it's necessary. Our colleague Ailsa Chang of All Things Considered spoke with Bill Cassidy, one of the Republican senators last night. And Cassidy gave an example why he thinks his numbers are correct. He says, you're asking for a lot of money to reopen schools. Makes sense. But the government has already appropriated three times the money the CDC says is necessary to reopen.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to a little bit of that.

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BILL CASSIDY: We can share with them the CDC data and the other scientific literature as to why we think what's out there is adequate. Now, the difference between our amount and his amount for K-12 is about $110 billion. So it's a lot of money.

INSKEEP: It's a lot of money. And do you accept the argument that a lot of money has already been appropriated in earlier COVID bills and not yet spent?

BERNSTEIN: You know, here's the argument that I not only accept but I think is critical - the danger now is not doing too much; it's doing too little. And in fact, that's the pattern that we've seen not just in this crisis but in past crises as well. We have underperformed, and we've never dealt this virus the knockout blow that it needs. Now, we're closer than we have been before, of course, because there's now a vaccine out there. But the cost of distributing the vaccine to the states, of controlling the virus in the meantime, of getting kids back to school, of getting more than a million parents who've been home caring for their kids back into the labor market - those costs scale to the magnitude that we're putting forward.

Now, again, the president is clearly and genuinely happy to engage with Republicans on meeting these goals. But one thing that he cannot settle for is, A, inaction - and I was glad to hear that Susan Collins sounded the same way - but, B, coming in with a package that fails to meet the magnitude of the moment. That's my...

INSKEEP: Well, on that - if I can, Jared, on that basic factual question, Cassidy is saying, we've already sent you money to reopen the schools. Is your assertion he's wrong - we actually need more money than has been sent?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, I think that's an area where we're quite far apart. I mean, they're at $20 billion; we're at $170- - so, you know, obviously, that's a big difference. And we will continue. In fact, one of the things that came out of that meeting is staff-level conversations about this, and I think we're going to make our case. I mean, I - you know, put forth our magnitude versus theirs in terms of what it takes to reopen the schools.

By the way, there is no state and local funding in the Republican proposal. And that relates to this problem of both distributing, producing the vaccine, reopening schools, getting people the safety equipment they need to do so. So that's a subject of discussion we can have. The point that I want to make here so that every listener gets this is that this can't be a discussion that drags on. This discussion, this exchange, these negotiations, they cannot be an excuse for any kind of inaction. And again, I heard the same tone from Susan Collins, and it's a welcome tone. We have to move quickly on this now.

INSKEEP: I understand you then to be saying, we will delay a few days. We'll give it a few days to see if we can make a deal, but we're not giving up on this alternative proposal by which Democrats could pass a plan without Republicans at all.

BERNSTEIN: Delay, inaction, failure to negotiate in good faith - these are the enemies of controlling the virus, distributing the vaccine and finally - finally - arriving at a robust economic recovery that's inclusive and racially equitable. Those are the goals of the president, and that's what the American Rescue Plan does.

INSKEEP: Let me just ask, in a few seconds, you said good faith - do you believe the Republicans who are negotiating with the president are doing so in good faith?

BERNSTEIN: I do. I think that the kinds of urgency that you heard from Collins in that quote and from others is real. I think we're - we share that sentiment. I think what we need to do now is implement the president's plan as quickly as possible while we engage in these exchanges.

INSKEEP: Jared Bernstein is a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and a longtime adviser to the president. Thanks so much.

BERNSTEIN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.