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President-Elect Joe Biden Calls For Another Round Of Economic Stimulus

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Donald Trump will remain president 57 more days. But since his defeat, he has rarely appeared in public and said little about the pandemic. He has mainly spoken on Twitter, mainly spreading discredited conspiracy theories about the election. In Trump's absence, coronavirus cases and deaths are soaring as we head into what may be a terrible winter. And Congress has not approved further economic relief. Some unemployment assistance is ending at the end of this year and so are moratoriums on evictions and student debt relief. Joe Biden, the incoming president, wants action. But that won't be easy to get through Congress. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Joe Biden has made it clear - in this current pandemic economy, people need money. And they need it quickly. Here he is last week in his first big economic speech since the election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: Right now, Congress should come together and pass a COVID relief package like the Heroes Act that the House passed six months ago.

KHALID: The sticking point is that Democrats want over $2 trillion. Republicans insist the economy is doing better and the country only needs something like 500 billion. Jason Furman was the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration.

JASON FURMAN: I think a meaningful something is a lot better than nothing. And, you know, holding out for more is a strategy to prolong suffering.

KHALID: And so Biden is facing an unusual test - how he's able to influence Congress now before he's even sworn into office. On Friday, he met with Democratic leaders to discuss an emergency aid package during the lame duck session. Jared Bernstein is a transition adviser on the economy. He told business reporters in a Q&A last week that, typically, an incoming administration would wait until it's officially in charge to put its fingerprints on policies.

JARED BERNSTEIN: That's certainly what we did in the Obama administration, where we had the Recovery Act in the field a month after President Obama took office.

KHALID: But this time, he says, is different.

BERNSTEIN: You hear the president-elect saying this is something that should happen now. And the reason is, basically, the economy is at a very precarious moment.

KHALID: It's not just the sputtering economy and the spreading virus. It's that in 2009, Democrats controlled the Senate. And now control of the chamber is up in the air. Bernstein says there are three things to think about for a stimulus, size, composition and speed. And he singles one out.

BERNSTEIN: Composition is important. Size is very important. But speed is so essential right now.

KHALID: The question is whether Biden ought to be encouraging Democrats to move fast even if it means accepting a smaller deal. Here's Jason Furman again.

FURMAN: I wouldn't be surprised if there's a debate within Biden world of 500 billion sort of sucks, but we may not be able to do better. And this means, like, the economy will be better under us. And we don't need to take ownership for it - versus other people who are like, we don't want to look like the party to cave even before he's in office.

KHALID: It would be complicated for some Democrats to look like they're giving in. But regardless, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says rarely does Congress get much done around the holidays.

HARRY REID: I think it will be very difficult to get a meaningful relief bill done before January 20.

KHALID: Reid actually thinks the dynamic will shift in Biden's favor once Trump is no longer in office and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will face more pressure from the public.

REID: I think it will put some wind under the wings of McConnell not to be the grim reaper.

KHALID: Reid thinks if anyone could work with Republicans to pass another stimulus bill, it'd probably be Biden. But by inauguration, the economy could be even rockier.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORIAN HOEFNER GROUP'S "OVERTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.