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Biden Looks To Mayors To Help Make The Case For More COVID-19 Aid

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill will go to a vote this week. Republicans in Congress say it is too much money. Here's Congressman James Comer from Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES COMER: Congress already appropriated $150 billion in the CARES Act for state and local governments, and not all this money's been spent.

KING: So the Biden administration is looking outside of Washington, D.C., to build their case. Here's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When Mesa, Ariz., Mayor John Giles looks out his window at City Hall, he can see the convention center. It's become a hub for those seeking help in the pandemic.

JOHN GILES: And on alternating days, it is people that are there to pop their trunk and get 50 pounds of food put in their trunk, or it's people that are waiting in line to get the vaccine. So it's a pretty sobering view from the mayor's office.

KEITH: His city got $90 million in relief funds last spring - spent it all. And Giles says they easily could have filed receipts for double that. The sobering view from his office window explains why this Republican mayor is pushing hard for the $350 billion in funding for state and local governments in the bill.

GILES: You know, this is - it's just too important to engage in silly partisan debates.

KEITH: Most cities and towns didn't get direct help like Mesa did. They had to wait for it to trickle down through their states and counties. The deadline to spend it isn't until the end of this year, so some are trying to make it last as they manage strapped budgets. For months now, a bipartisan group of mayors has been pushing for more.

NAN WHALEY: In July, we called ourselves July or bust.

KEITH: That's Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat. Her city's budget has been slammed by the pandemic, so much so that she isn't sure they'll be able to train a new class of police officers or firefighters this year.

WHALEY: We're not like the federal government. We have to have a balanced budget. So if we don't get any federal money, no fire class.

KEITH: Dayton is recruiting new firefighters and police officers but may not be able to bring them on board without more money. When it comes to the schools, it's a similar story. Congress has approved about $68 billion so far for K-12 schools. While not all of the funds have been spent, education officials say the money is spoken for and they need more. In Pennsylvania, Palisades School District Superintendent Bridget O'Connell says they were able to reopen in the fall, and that meant hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes and to teach online.

BRIDGET O'CONNELL: So it is a staff-intensive endeavor to educate kids during a pandemic.

KEITH: Staff aren't paid up front, which is one reason why it may look like funds are unspent. And the bulk of the money Congress approved for schools last year is just now going out. Superintendent Sean Rickert from Pima, Ariz., only found out last week how much his district can expect to get.

SEAN RICKERT: I have a list of all - you know, of things that we need in order to be able to, you know, provide better social distancing, more safety for teachers, more safety for students.

KEITH: They've been open nearly full time since the fall, making do with the money they have. His message to critics who point to unspent funds and say schools don't need more - it isn't a light switch. The money doesn't get approved one day and spent the next. And that's why President Biden and Democrats are pushing ahead with new funding and say they can't wait for Republicans in Congress to come around.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT JORGENSEN'S "SPACE, PLANE AND LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.