Biden warns Covid-19 toll can cross 600,000, urges Congress to pass rescue plan
President Joe Biden warned on Friday that the number of coronavirus deaths in the United States was expected to surpass 600,000 and urged Congress to move fast on his $1.9 trillion plan to battle Covid-19 and provide economic relief to struggling Americans.
While Biden called for urgent passage of his "American Rescue Plan," his efforts to get Congress to cooperate on his fast-paced agenda could be complicated by Donald Trump's looming impeachment trial in the Senate.
Top Democratic lawmakers said Friday that they planned to send the article of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives to the Senate on Monday, triggering Trump's trial in the body.
"The virus is surging," Biden told reporters at the White House before signing executive orders boosting food aid and speeding up stimulus payments to Americans.
"We're at 400,000 dead, expected to reach well over 600,000. Families are going hungry. People are at risk of being evicted. Job losses are mounting again. We need to act now... We need to move fast."
Biden added that he was looking forward to working with both parties in Congress to "move quickly" on getting people help through his rescue plan.
"The bottom line is this: We're in a national emergency. We've got to act like we're in a national emergency," he said.
Biden is having to push Congress for funding while simultaneously getting his government confirmed -- Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin won Senate approval Friday -- and bracing for turmoil from the impeachment trial.
Trump was impeached by the House on January 13 for inciting supporters to storm Congress a week earlier.
"A trial will be held in the United States Senate and there will be a vote whether to convict the president," Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer said.
Barrage of executive orders
Although Biden's latest executive orders on food aid and stimulus payments were modest in scale, they reinforced the message that Washington needs to step in decisively against the pandemic and related economic fallout.
Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan provides more than $400 billion to tackle the pandemic along with additional funding for small businesses and direct relief payments to Americans.
But Congress, having already passed two huge economic relief bills, is reluctant. The president's Democratic Party has only a small majority in the House and a razor-thin advantage in the Senate.
Biden is also relying on the Senate to hurry up and approve his cabinet nominations.
Brian Deese, director of the White House's National Economic Council, said Republicans and Democrats in Congress must find ways to manage the clashing issues.
"We are facing right now a period of multiple crises and what we need right now is to be able to act on multiple fronts," he said.
The new administration has brought a calmer style after the stormy Trump era, but Biden's cascade of executive orders since the moment he entered the White House on Wednesday is making plenty of noise of its own.
On Inauguration Day, the 78-year-old Democrat signed 17 actions. He signed 10 on Thursday and another two on Friday.
The slew of orders has covered top campaign agenda items, including the political hot potato of immigration reform.
Biden extended protections from deportation for so-called "Dreamers" -- children of illegal immigrants who have grown up in the country.
But the offensive is overwhelmingly targeted against what Biden described on Friday as a "once in a century public health crisis" and the worst "job and economic crisis in modern history."
"And the crisis is only deepening," he said. "It's not getting better. It's deepening."
'Walk and chew gum'
On the appointments front, a first key security figure was confirmed on Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. The Senate's confirmation of Austin on Friday makes him the first African American to lead the Pentagon.
Tony Blinken for secretary of state and Janet Yellen for treasury secretary appeared to be headed for confirmation either Friday or next week.
That already clogged schedule in the legislature will now have to cope with the impeachment drama.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden, who was a senator for decades, remains confident.
"The Senate, members of both parties, can walk and chew gum at the same time and can move forward with the business of the American people," she said.