Why Biden Looks To Mayors To Help Make The Case For More COVID-19 Aid
Updated at 2 p.m. ET
When Mesa, Ariz., Mayor John Giles looks out his window at city hall, he can see tangible signs of how the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt his community.
From his perch, he can see the city's convention center, which has become a hub for those seeking help. Sometimes, there are lines a thousand cars long with people coming to pick up food from a food bank. Other days, it's people lined up for COVID-19 vaccines.
"It's a pretty sobering view from the mayor's office," Giles said in an interview with NPR.
That's why Giles, a Republican, is lobbying Republican members of his state's congressional delegation to accept that the $350 billion in state and local funding in President Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package should not be thrown overboard, as it was during the last round of relief negotiations.
Biden's White House has found common cause with Republican mayors and county commissioners, highlighting it to bolster their claim that the COVID-19 proposal is "bipartisan," even as there's little sign Republicans in Congress will back the plan.
They say U.S. taxpayers shouldn't be bailing out cities and states for what they say are poor planning and bad decisions made over the years. "Congress already has provided billions of taxpayer dollars to state and local governments and it remains unclear how the money has been used and how much remains to be spent," Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said in a statement Friday.
"Before Democrats attempt to provide hundreds of billions more to locked-down and poorly managed liberal states, Congress needs all of the facts first to prevent government waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars."
On Friday, Biden asked a bipartisan group of mayors and governors for their ideas at a meeting in the Oval Office, including mayors from Miami; Arlington, Texas; New Orleans; Atlanta; and Detroit. It's part of a series of events he has used to sell his plan to the public. Next week, Biden will travel to Milwaukee, Wis., for a televised town hall-style event to discuss his proposal.
"I think the federal government has a major role to play here. But these are the folks that are on the ground dealing with it every single, solitary day. And they see the pain, and they see the successes when they occur," Biden told reporters.
"What I really want to know about is ... that recovery plan, should we have more or less of anything in it, what do they think they need most?" Biden said.
After the meeting, Miami's Republican Mayor Francis Suarez told reporters his city, like many others, fell short of a population threshold used to allocate the bulk of an earlier round of aid, leaving officials struggling.
"Our residents got a fraction of the help that they needed," Suarez said.
Back in Mesa, Giles said he just wants to see the "silly partisan gamesmanship" set aside so that his city can get help with the long list of support it provides to residents grappling with the fallout from the pandemic — help with rent, utility bills, food, coronavirus tests and vaccine distribution. "Everything that's important to the country right now is happening at the local government level," said Giles.
If you didn't know Giles was a Republican, it would be easy to imagine the pitch he's making coming from someone in the Biden White House. Yes, it's a lot of money, he said, and certainly the debt and deficit are a concern in the long term. But right now, this Republican mayor said there is an urgent need.
As part of the CARES Act passed early during the pandemic, Giles said Mesa got $90 million from the federal government in March, money used for new expenses that arose as a result of the pandemic. It is long gone now.
"At the end of the year, we could have frankly turned in receipts for twice as much tied to all the pandemic-related expenses that we were incurring," said Giles.
The much-smaller city of Scranton, Pa., didn't see its share of CARES Act funding until November and December, said Mayor Paige Gebhardt Cognetti. It was enough to pay for some personal protective equipment and extra IT resources needed for people to work from home, but Scranton is still facing a large hole in its budget caused by the pandemic.
Scranton also has had miles-long waits at food banks. "That remains a huge issue," said Cognetti, a Democrat who is eager to see the relief as proposed in Biden's aid package.
Cognetti was one of a handful of mayors to meet last week via Zoom with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen — just one of many examples of outreach from the Biden administration to local governments. Cognetti said Yellen wanted to discuss how to make sure aid got to people most in need.
"I think there could be a real gap between what happens in Washington and what happens at the kitchen table or the mailbox or in the email inbox of someone working two or three jobs and trying to raise their kids," Cognetti said.
More than 400 mayors signed on to a letter drafted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors urging direct aid for local governments and have begun sending individual letters directly to members of Congress.
"We're very proud of the letter," said Tom Cochran, CEO of the mayors' group. "We're very proud that we're bipartisan and we think it's making a difference."
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