Biden Team Readies Wider Economic Package After Virus Relief
WASHINGTON (AP) — Looking beyond the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, President Joe Biden and lawmakers are laying the groundwork for another top legislative priority — a long-sought boost to the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure that could run into Republican resistance to a hefty price tag.
Biden and his team have begun discussions on the possible outlines of an infrastructure package with members of Congress, particularly mindful that Texas’ recent struggles with power outages and water shortages after a brutal winter storm present an opportunity for agreement on sustained spending on infrastructure.
Republicans say if the White House approach on the COVID relief bill — which passed the House Saturday on a near party-line vote and now heads to the Senate — is a sign of things to come for Biden’s plan on infrastructure and other initiatives, it could be a difficult road ahead in Congress.
A White House proposal could come out in March.
“Now is the time to be aggressive,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a former South Bend, Indiana, mayor who knows potholes.
At a conference with state and local highway officials Thursday, he referred to the often-promised, never-achieved mega-initiative on roads, bridges and the like from the Trump administration.
“I know you are among those who are working and waiting most patiently, or maybe impatiently, for the moment when Infrastructure Week will no longer be a kind of Groundhog’s Day promise — but actually be something that delivers generational investments,” he said.
Much of America’s infrastructure — roads, bridges, public drinking and water systems, dams, airports, mass transit systems and more — is in need of major restoration after years of underfunding, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, it gave the national infrastructure an overall grade of D+.
Both chambers of Congress will use as starting points their unsuccessful efforts to get infrastructure bills through the last session.
Democrats passed a $1.5 trillion package in the House last year, but it went nowhere with the Trump administration and the Republican-led Senate. A Senate panel approved narrower bipartisan legislation in 2019 focused on reauthorizing federal transportation programs. It, too, flamed out as the U.S. turned its focus to elections and COVID-19.
Biden has talked bigger numbers, and some Democrats are now urging him to bypass Republicans in the closely divided Congress to address a broader range of priorities urged by interest groups.
During the presidential campaign, Biden pledged to deploy $2 trillion on infrastructure and clean energy, but the White House has not ruled out an even higher price tag.
Pointing to the storm in Texas as a “wake-up call” for the need to improve energy systems and other infrastructure, Gina McCarthy, Biden’s national climate adviser, told The Associated Press that Biden’s plan will specifically aim at green and other initiatives that promote job creation. She cited as an example federal investments to boost “workers that have been left behind” by closed coal mines or power plants, as well as communities located near polluting refineries and other hazards.
“He’s been a long fan of investing in infrastructure — long outdated — long overdue, I should say,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “But he also wants to do more on caregiving, help our manufacturing sector, do more to strengthen access to affordable health care. So the size — the package — the components of it, the order, that has not yet been determined.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, recently told the White House that he’s ready to use the budget maneuver known as reconciliation to pass a broad economic recovery package with only Democratic votes. That drew stern warnings from Republicans, who have already closed ranks against Democrats’ COVID-19 relief bill.
“They made a conscious decision not to include us,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., on Sunday, calling the White House’s assertion that the views of Republicans were taken into account with the COVID bill a “joke.”
Cassidy, one of 10 centrist Republicans who met with Biden in early February about getting bipartisan support on that bill, said Biden “so far has been about rhetoric” when it comes to his pledge of seeking unity and bipartisanship. He called it worrisome for other legislative initiatives.
“Republicans remain willing and are working on issues that require bipartisan cooperation,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican who will be helping to craft legislation on the Senate side, said there’s bipartisan support for ambitious steps on infrastructure. But that “should not extend to a multitrillion-dollar package that is stocked full with other ideologically driven, one-size-fits-all policies that tie the hands of our states and our communities,” said Capito, the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the AP that he foresees a comprehensive House package that will go beyond roads, bridges and public transit. He also expects it to have money for water systems, broadband and the power grid — addressing a weak infrastructure laid bare after the crippling blackouts in Texas.
He’s not ready to talk overall costs yet. DeFazio, D-Ore., said it will be up to the Biden administration and the House Ways and Means Committee to figure out how to pay for it.
DeFazio said General Motors’ recently announced goal of going largely electric by 2035 demonstrates the need for massive spending on charging stations across the country. Biden campaigned on a plan to install 500,000 charging stations by the end of 2030.
“I’m totally willing to work with (Republicans) if they’re willing to recognize climate change,” DeFazio said, “or if they don’t want to recognize climate change, they can just recognize that electric semis and electric vehicles are a flood on the horizon and we’ve got to get ahead of it.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., expressed a similar sentiment, urging strong action on carbon emissions and the vehicle charging stations to help achieve a “full transition to electric.” She also wants states to have more federal grants for infrastructure repairs after natural disasters and extreme weather.
At the Senate hearing where she spoke, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said there’s bipartisan support among governors for relieving congestion, cutting red tape, leveraging private sector investment and ensuring projects can better withstand cyber attacks and natural disasters.
Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said his goal is for his committee to pass an infrastructure bill by Memorial Day.
In the House, Rep. Sam Graves, the top Republican on the transportation panel, said Republicans would be open to a larger package as long as it didn’t greatly add to the national debt.
But many lawmakers oppose an increase in the federal gas tax, one way to help pay for the spending, while groups such as the Chamber of Commerce argue against increasing taxes on companies during a pandemic.
White House aide Cedric Richmond, a former congressman from Louisiana, told state transportation officials the president intends for most of the spending to be paid for, not added to the debt. In part, this would be by reversing some of the Trump administration tax cuts.
Ed Mortimer, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said removing items in last year’s infrastructure bill for renovating schools and low-income housing could lower the price tag, because the COVID relief measure passed by the House already has hundreds of billions of dollars for those purposes.
“Affordable housing, school construction, very meritorious, but we’re not sure that that’s a key focus that’s going to get a bill signed into law,” Mortimer said.
US, UK try to stem fallout from Silicon Valley Bank collapse
NEW YORK (AP) — Governments in the U.S. and Britain are taking extraordinary steps to prevent a potential banking crisis after the failure of California-based Silicon Valley Bank prompted fears of a broader upheaval.
U.S. regulators worked through the weekend to find a buyer for the bank, which had more than $200 billion in assets and catered to tech startups, venture capital firms, and well-paid technology workers.
While those efforts appeared to have failed, officials assured all of the bank’s customers that they would be able to access their money on Monday.
The assurances came as part of an expansive emergency lending program intended to prevent a wave of bank runs that would threaten the stability of the banking system and the economy as a whole.
Meanwhile, the Bank of England and U.K. Treasury said early Monday that they had facilitated the sale of the bank’s London-based subsidiary to HSBC, Europe’s biggest bank, ensuring the security of 6.7 billion pounds ($8.1 billion) of deposits.
Regulators in the U.S. rushed to close Silicon Valley Bank on Friday when it experienced a traditional bank run, where depositors rushed to withdraw their funds all at once. It is the second-largest bank failure in U.S. history, behind only the 2008 failure of Washington Mutual.
In a sign of how fast the financial bleeding was occurring, regulators announced that New York-based Signature Bank had also failed and was being seized on Sunday.
At more than $110 billion in assets, Signature Bank is the third-largest bank failure in U.S. history. Another beleaguered bank, First Republic Bank, announced Sunday that it had bolstered its financial health by gaining access to funding from the Fed and JPMorgan Chase.
The developments left markets jittery as trading began Monday. The Asian and European markets fell but not dramatically, and U.S. futures were down.
In an effort to shore up confidence in the banking system, the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve and FDIC said Sunday that all Silicon Valley Bank clients would be protected and able to access their money.
“This step will ensure that the U.S. banking system continues to perform its vital roles of protecting deposits and providing access to credit to households and businesses in a manner that promotes strong and sustainable economic growth,” the agencies said in a joint statement.
Under the plan, depositors at Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, including those whose holdings exceed the $250,000 insurance limit, will be able to access their money on Monday.
The U.K. also moved quickly, working throughout the weekend to arrange the sale of Silicon Valley Bank UK Ltd., the California bank’s British arm, for the nominal sum of one pound.
While the bank is small, with less than 0.2% of U.K. bank deposits according to central bank statistics, it had a large role in financing technology and biotech startups that the British government is counting on to fuel economic growth.
Jeremy Hunt, the U.K. government’s Treasury chief, said that some of the country’s leading tech companies could have been “wiped out.”
“When you have very young companies, very promising companies, they’re also fragile,” Hunt told reporters, explaining the why authorities moved so quickly. “They need to pay their staff and they were worried that as of 8 a.m. this morning, they might literally not be able to access their bank account.”
He stressed that there was never a “systemic risk” to the U.K.’s banking system.
In the U.S., officials characterized their lending program as akin to what central banks have done for decades: Lend freely to the banking system so that customers would be confident that they could access their accounts whenever needed.
That will allow banks that need to raise cash to pay depositors to borrow that money from the Fed, rather than having to sell Treasuries and other securities to raise it.
Silicon Valley Bank began its slide into insolvency when it was forced to dump some of its Treasuries at at a loss to fund its customers’ withdrawals. Under the Fed’s new program, banks can post those securities as collateral and borrow from the emergency facility.
The Treasury has set aside $25 billion to offset any losses incurred. Fed officials said, however, that they do not expect to have to use any of that money, given that the securities posted as collateral have a very low risk of default.
Though Sunday’s steps marked the most extensive government intervention in the banking system since the 2008 financial crisis, the actions are relatively limited compared with what was done 15 years ago. The two failed banks themselves have not been rescued, and taxpayer money has not been provided to them.
President Joe Biden said Sunday evening as he boarded Air Force One back to Washington that he would speak about the situation on Monday.
In a statement, Biden also said he was “firmly committed to holding those responsible for this mess fully accountable and to continuing our efforts to strengthen oversight and regulation of larger banks so that we are not in this position again.”
Some prominent Silicon Valley executives feared that if Washington didn’t rescue the failed bank, customers would make runs on other financial institutions in the coming days. Stock prices plunged over the last few days at other banks that cater to technology companies, including First Republic and PacWest Bank.
Among the bank’s customers are a range of companies from California’s wine industry, where many wineries rely on Silicon Valley Bank for loans, and technology startups devoted to combating climate change.
Tiffany Dufu, founder and CEO of The Cru, a New York-based career coaching platform and community for women, posted a video Sunday on LinkedIn from an airport bathroom, saying the bank crisis was testing her resiliency.
Given that her money was tied up at Silicon Valley Bank, she had to pay her employees out of her personal bank account. With two teenagers to support who will be heading to college, she said she was relieved to hear that the government’s intent is to make depositors whole.
“Small businesses and early-stage startups don’t have a lot of access to leverage in a situation like this, and we’re often in a very vulnerable position, particularly when we have to fight so hard to get the wires into your bank account to begin with, particularly for me, as a Black female founder,” Dufu said. ___ Rugaber and Megerian reported from Washington. Sweet and Bussewitz reported from New York. Associated Press Writers Hope Yen in Washington, Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.
Universal raises hourly wage to $17, setting pace for parks
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Universal Orlando Resort plans to raise its starting minimum wage by $2 to $17 an hour, becoming the wage leader among the big theme parks in central Florida, just as its crosstown rival, Walt Disney World, is in contract talks with service worker unions who are pushing to increase the starting hourly wage from $15 to $18.
The new wage structure, which includes raising pay for other workers based on the new rates and their time with the company, goes into effect in June, Universal Orlando Resort President and Chief Operating Officer Karen Irwin said in a letter Tuesday to the resort’s 25,000 workers.
The starting hourly wage hike is part of a larger effort aimed at improving worker benefits in a tight labor market that includes increasing 401(k) matches and tuition reimbursement, adding compassionate leave, doubling the amount of parental leave and upgrading behind-the-scenes areas for workers like break rooms and bathrooms, park officials said.
“But it doesn’t stop there, our culture seeks to create a path forward that supports our Team Members, gives them an opportunity to grow and fosters a real sense of purpose and belonging,” Irwin said in the letter.
Universal Orlando currently is recruiting for 2,500 positions across the resort. It also is gearing up toward opening a new park, Epic Universe, in 2025. The resort’s workers aren’t unionized.
At crosstown rival Walt Disney World, union members voted down a contract proposal covering 45,000 service workers earlier this month, saying it didn’t go far enough toward helping employees face cost-of-living hikes in housing and other expenses in central Florida. The company and unions plan to return to the negotiating table.
Disney World service workers who are in the six unions that make up the Service Trades Council Union coalition had been demanding a starting minimum wage jump to at least $18 an hour in the first year of the contract, up from the starting minimum wage of $15 an hour won in the previous contract.
The rejected proposal would have raised the starting minimum wage to $20 an hour for all service workers by the last year of the five-year contract, an increase of $1 each year for a majority of the workers it covered. Certain positions, like housekeepers, bus drivers and culinary jobs, would start immediately at a minimum of $20 under the proposal.
Raising Canes Opens Clearwater Location to Rave Reviews
CLEARWATER, Fla. (FNN) – Hundreds of people lined up Tuesday for the grand opening of Raising Canes, the latest chicken hot spot in the Tampa Bay area. Raising Canes, which was founded in Louisiana, dubbed Clearwater as their first Florida location and fans delivered a warm welcome for the chain that proudly proclaims, “we serve only the most crave-able chicken finger meals, it’s our one love.”
The Pena’s showing some sibling love wanted to be the first in line for this momentous occasion. Getting in line at 10 PM, the duo planned to camp out with friends.
“We had to stay up all night, but it was fun,” said Ashley Pena. “We are definitely going to remember this experience.”
20 of the first 100 people were entered into a drawing to win free Raising Canes for a year!
For Kim Boldus, bringing the franchise to the area hits close to home and means the world to her.
“Raising Canes is really all about being in the community,” she said. I’m really excited personally and professionally because I am from this area, born and raised. I am very excited to bring this amazing restaurant. We do so many amazing things to pair with the community and I can’t wait to see what we do here in Clearwater.”
According to their website, Raising Canes supports over 30,000 local organizations. At the grand opening, they had the support of the local Chamber of Commerce as well as the Mayor to celebrate this momentous occasion.
After the pomp and circumstance, it was time to eat, much to the delight of the hungry fans waiting for a taste of chicken tender goodness, some who has experienced Raising Canes before, and others who wanted to see what the hype was all about.
“We’ve had our food truck out in the community this week and so we’ve had so many people excited to see us,” Boldus added. “For those who have never been, you can expect the most tender chicken fingers you’ve ever had with the best special secret sauce and garlic Texas toast that will blow your mind.”
Unsure of what to get? Bodldus offers a simple solution.
“Definitely a box combo so that you can try everything we have on the menu!”
Raising Canes is located at 2525 Gulf to Bay Blvd, Clearwater, FL 33765. The restaurant offers both dine-in and drive-through options and is open from 10 AM until midnight Sunday – Thursday and 1 AM on Friday and Saturday.
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