Biden: Jobs report shows “long way to go” in economic recovery

By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Friday predicted a “long way to go” for U.S. economic recovery from a pandemic-spurred slump and urged Washington to do more to help the American people after a disappointing jobs report.

U.S. job growth unexpectedly slowed in April, likely restrained by shortages of workers and raw materials.

Biden and his team have said his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, the Democratic president’s first major legislative accomplishment, is helping to bring the economy back from its pandemic plummet.

“Today’s report just underscores in my view how vital the actions we’re taking are,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. “Our efforts are starting to work. But the climb is steep and we still have a long way to go.”

The White House is pressing for trillions of dollars more in spending on infrastructure, education and other priorities. Republicans, however, object to the high price tag of Biden’s initiatives and critics have raised concerns about inflation and a disincentive, thanks to generous unemployment benefits, for people to return to the workforce.

The White House dismissed that criticism on Friday. Biden said he had not seen evidence that enhanced unemployment benefits were putting a drag on employment figures.

Jared Bernstein, a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Reuters Biden’s COVID relief and stimulus package, known as the American Rescue Plan, had helped generate an average of more than half a million jobs per month over the last three months, April notwithstanding.

“Those are big numbers, and the fingerprints of the American Rescue Plan are all over those additions,” he said.

Bernstein said no course correction was required from the White House, a theme echoed by Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, who pressed for passage of Biden’s next legislative push.

“The disappointing April jobs report highlights the urgent need to pass President Biden’s American Jobs and Families Plans,” she said in a statement. “We need to take bold action to Build Back Better from this crisis by investing in our nation, our workers and our families.”

Republicans viewed it differently.

“Why is anyone surprised that the jobs reports fell short of expectations?,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida on Twitter. “I told you weeks ago that in #Florida I hear from #smallbusinesses every day that they can’t hire people because the government is having them not go back to work.”

The share of Americans who are either working or looking for work rose last month, and the number of people who said they are not looking for jobs because of COVID-19 fell by 900,000 in April, Bernstein said, pushing back against criticism from some employers that the benefits had kept some people from returning to the workplace.

“Thus far, we don’t see a correlation between unemployment insurance benefits and lack of employment,” he said.

“What we do see is a lot of people who are still hesitant to go back to work because of safety concerns, care issues, schooling issues, and we’ll continue to watch this very closely.”

(Reporting By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Jonnelle Marte and Merdie Nzanga; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrea Ricci, William Maclean)

Biden administration to invest $1.7 billion to fight COVID-19 variants

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration on Friday said it will invest $1.7 billion to help states and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fight COVID-19 variants that are rapidly spreading across the United States.

The investment, which will be part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, will improve detection, monitoring, and mitigation of these variants by scaling up genomic sequencing efforts – a key step in containing the spread, the White House said.

“The original strain of COVID-19 comprises only about half of all cases in America today. New and potentially dangerous strains of the virus make up the other half,” the White House said in a statement.

In early February, U.S. laboratories were only sequencing about 8,000 COVID-19 strains per week. Since then the administration has invested nearly $200 million to increase genomic sequencing to 29,000 samples per week – an effort that will get a boost with the new funding.

The investment will be broken down into three areas: $1 billion to expand genomic sequencing, $400 million to help build six research centers for genomic epidemiology and $300 million to build a national bioinformatics infrastructure – which will help build a repository of data.

The first portion of the funding will be distributed in early May and the next round will be invested over the coming several years, the White House said.

The White House also offered a state-by-state breakdown of the funds with California receiving over $17 million, Texas over $15 million and Florida over $12 million.

A White House official said on Thursday the United States is preparing for the possibility that a booster shot will be needed between nine to 12 months after people are initially vaccinated against COVID-19.

Also, Pfizer Inc Chief Executive Albert Bourla said people will “likely” need a third booster dose of COVID-19 vaccines within 12 months and could need annual shots.

The United States had administered 198,317,040 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Thursday morning and distributed 255,400,665 doses, according to the CDC.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Biden signs $1.9 trillion stimulus bill into law on U.S. lockdown anniversary

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden signed his $1.9 trillion stimulus bill into law on Thursday, commemorating the one-year anniversary of a U.S. lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic with a measure designed to bring relief to Americans and boost the economy.

The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives gave final congressional approval to the measure on Wednesday, handing the Democratic president a major victory in the early months of his term.

“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country,” Biden said before signing.

Biden signed the measure before a prime-time speech he plans later on Thursday to herald the anniversary of the lockdown, urge vigilance as the pandemic rages, and offer hope amid a growing number of vaccinated people across the country.

Biden’s signing of the legislation, called the American Rescue Plan, had initially been scheduled for Friday, but White House chief of staff Ron Klain said it was moved up after it arrived at the White House on Wednesday night.

“We want to move as fast as possible,” Klain posted on Twitter. A celebration with congressional leaders would still take place on Friday, he said.

The package provides $400 billion for $1,400 direct payments to most Americans, $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, an expansion of the child tax credit and increased funding for COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Biden has told Americans since his January inauguration that more deaths and pain were coming from COVID-19.

With the vaccinated population slowly increasing, Biden is conveying fresh hope even as he urges people to continue to be cautious to prevent further flare-ups.

Biden and top aides are planning a nationwide tour to sell Americans on the benefits of the pandemic relief bill, including Pennsylvania next Tuesday and Atlanta on March 19.

Roughly 530,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, and about 10% of Americans have been fully vaccinated.

Biden said on Wednesday he would use his 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT) address to discuss “what we’ve been through as a nation this past year” and lay out the next phase of the government’s COVID-19 response.

The president is expected to warn Americans who, like people worldwide, are weary of pandemic restrictions, not to revert to normal behavior prematurely. Biden has urged continued mask wearing, social distancing and good hygiene, and he has discouraged cities and states from loosening their guidelines on large gatherings even as more localities relax restrictions.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal and Susan Heavey; Editing by Heather Timmons, Will Dunham and Howard Goller)

Analysis: Urban states come out ahead, rural states get less in Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill

By Andy Sullivan and Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package now making its way through the U.S. Congress would provide $350 billion to help pandemic-hit state and local governments balance their budgets, more than twice the amount lawmakers approved last year.

But not every state comes out ahead: urban, Democratic-led states like Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts that took drastic steps to stop the coronavirus’ spread would get about three times as much money per person as they did in the package passed at the beginning of the health crisis in March.

Rural, Republican-led states including Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota that did less would see less cash.

That’s because Congress is giving greater weight to poverty and unemployment this time as it considers how to distribute money to keep police, firefighters and other public employees on the job during a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work.

It also reflects the fact that Democrats who control both chambers of Congress drafted the package for their fellow Democrat President Joe Biden without Republican input.

Under the new bill, named the American Rescue Plan, 61% of the aid would end up in states that voted for Biden in November, up from 56% in the bipartisan CARES Act passed last March.

Reuters examined House Oversight Committee projections on how much direct fiscal aid each state would receive in the bill, which is set for a vote in the House of Representatives this week before moving to the Senate.

It is expected to pass, even if no Republicans vote for it.

The CARES Act distributed $140 billion to state and local governments based on population, delivering a minimum of $1.25 billion to each state. That gave the largest per-capita benefits to the states with the smallest populations, including Wyoming and Vermont. Another $3 billion was set aside for Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories.

This time around, Democrats have lowered the per-state minimum to $500 million. The remaining $300 billion would be allocated based on unemployment and poverty levels as well as population. Tribal governments and territories would get $24.5 billion. Washington, D.C., would be treated like a state.

Advocates say the new formula ensures the money goes where it is needed, as COVID-19’s toll has been uneven across the country. Unemployment in December topped 9% in tourism-dependent Nevada and Hawaii, triple the 3% in Nebraska and South Dakota.

“This is a more targeted approach,” said Michael Leachman, a budget expert at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who supports additional state and local aid.

Republicans say the bill short-changes states that have imposed fewer coronavirus-related restrictions.

“The real reason for this bill is to send billions to bail out blue-state governors and reward their harmful lockdown policies,” Representative Jason Smith of Missouri said at a House Budget Committee hearing on Monday.

The new bill would direct roughly $800 per person to Republican-led Utah and Alabama, which had some of the least restrictive COVID-19 responses, according to Oxford University researchers.

It would send roughly $1,200 per person to Democratic-led Massachusetts and New York, among the most restrictive.

Democrats argue that the money should be targeted towards areas that have suffered the most.

“Since when is unemployment not a legitimate indicator of economic distress?” Representative David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina, said at the same hearing.

A DIVISIVE SUBJECT

State and local aid has proven to be one of the most divisive aspects of the multi-trillion dollar effort Washington has mounted in the past year to fight the virus and keep the world’s largest economy afloat.

Republicans and Democrats both broadly supported small-business loans and direct payments to families.

But Republicans have balked at providing more aid to state and local governments. State and local aid was excluded from a bipartisan $900 billion bill that passed in December.

The National Association of State Budget Officers calculated state revenues would drop 10.8% in the current fiscal year when compared with pre-pandemic estimates, affecting Republican-led and Democratic-led states alike.

Some analysts say the Democrats’ proposal, which adds up to about $500 billion when spending for public schools, transit and other aid is included, provides states with more than they need, however.

“People dramatically overestimated how bad the state and local finances would be,” Stan Veuger, an economist at the center-right American Enterprise Institute.

Bipartisan groups like the National Governors Association have argued that further aid is needed to help states deliver health care and education and avoid further layoffs that could prolong the recovery, though they have not endorsed specific proposals.

Though the new bill would steer more money towards large states, smaller states still fare well. Vermont, Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota, each with fewer than 1 million residents, are still among the top 10 recipients on a per capita basis.

(Reporting by Jason Lange and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Sonya Hepinstall)