2nd LD Writethru: Yellen urges Congress to pass new COVID-19 relief package as recovery stalls amid surging cases

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- Janet Yellen, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for treasury secretary, on Tuesday urged U.S. Congress to pass a new COVID-19 relief package as the economic recovery is losing momentum amid surging coronavirus cases.

"Economists don't always agree, but I think there is a consensus now: Without further action, we risk a longer, more painful recession now - and long-term scarring of the economy later," Yellen said at her confirmation hearing virtually held by the Senate Finance Committee.

"The pandemic has caused widespread devastation. Whole industries have paused their work. Eighteen million unemployment insurance claims are being paid every week. Food bank shelves are going empty. The damage has been sweeping," she said.

With interest rates at historic lows, Yellen urged lawmakers to "act big" with the COVID-19 relief package. "In the long run, I believe the benefits will far outweigh the costs, especially if we care about helping people who have been struggling for a very long time," she said.

Yellen's remarks came after Biden last week unveiled a 1.9-trillion-U.S. dollar COVID-19 relief proposal, which draw opposition from a growing number of congressional Republicans.

"With the trillions already in the pipeline, and close to $1 trillion of relief enacted just a few short weeks ago, it is important to focus efforts on pandemic relief. Now is not the time to enact a laundry list of liberal structural economic reforms," Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Tuesday at the hearing.

Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics, said Biden's relief proposal is just the start of a negotiation that he expects will ultimately result in a smaller relief package of no more than half the 1.9-trillion-dollar proposal.

"Our baseline outlook assumes only a $750 billion relief package becoming law in March. But we also expect that Biden will introduce and Congress will pass another fiscal stimulus package late this year," Zandi wrote on Sunday in an analysis.

If confirmed by the Senate, Yellen told lawmakers that her first task as treasury secretary will be helping Americans endure the final months of this pandemic and keeping people safe while getting them back to work.

"But then there is the longer-term project. We have to rebuild our economy so that it creates more prosperity for more people and ensures that American workers can compete in an increasingly competitive global economy," she said.

Yellen noted that well before the pandemic, Americans were "living in a K-shaped economy, one where wealth built on wealth while working families fell further and further behind." "This is especially true for people of color," she said.

Yellen, a well-regarded economist and former central bank official, is not expected to face any serious opposition from senators, as all eight living former U.S. treasury secretaries have urged the Senate to quickly approve her nomination.

"Our nation faces urgent economic and national security challenges, and we believe that delaying the confirmation of our government's principal economic official would create unnecessary risk during this critical time," the former secretaries wrote Tuesday in a letter.

If confirmed by the Senate, Yellen would be the first woman to serve as U.S. treasury secretary in the department's 231 years of history. She would also be the first person to have served as treasury secretary, chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and chair of the Federal Reserve.

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