WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A little-known agency that keeps the U.S. federal bureaucracy running is the biggest impediment to new efforts to fight the coronavirus outbreak, Democratic President-elect Joe Biden said on Wednesday.
“There’s a whole lot of things that we just don’t have available to us,” Biden said, including real-time data on personal protective equipment and the distribution plan for COVID-19 vaccines.
Emily Murphy, administrator of the General Services Administration, must “ascertain” the winner of the Nov. 3 presidential election between Biden and Republican President Donald Trump. That is a condition of releasing funds and resources to the winner, but she has so far not done so.
Despite a clear margin of victory for Biden, Trump has refused to concede, and his legal challenges are fizzling.
Murphy has sole authority to release salaries, office space, official email addresses and intelligence briefings to an incoming administration, which formally takes over with Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
“Unless it’s made available soon, we’re going to be behind by weeks or months,” in his administration’s coronavirus effort, Biden told emergency responders, nurses and other frontline workers at an online event in Washington. “So, I just want to tell you that that’s the only slowdown right now that we have.”
A third wave of coronavirus infection has gripped the United States, and the country’s death toll crossed 250,000 people on Wednesday.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Wednesday described a “crazy situation” where he speaks daily with the White House coronavirus experts and has a separate channel of communications with Biden’s advisory board on the virus.
“Those two camps aren’t speaking. And that’s a big problem,” Murphy, a Democrat, told CNN. “That is a major problem that could put both the distribution of the vaccine at risk and, more broadly, lives at risk.”
The GSA’s Murphy is under mounting pressure from election watchdogs, Democrats, a growing number of Republicans, the American Medical Association and her predecessor to recognize Biden as the winner.
“She’s going to make an ascertainment when the winner is clear, as laid out in the Constitution,” a GSA spokeswoman said before Biden’s remarks.
Late on Wednesday, the leaders of the National Association of Manufacturers, including Dow Chemical CEO Jim Fitterling, called on Murphy to sign the needed papers “to ensure manufacturers can continue to work seamlessly with the federal government” on challenges such as vaccine distribution.
“There is no time to waste nor room for error,” they wrote in a joint letter. “We know what is at stake: American lives and livelihoods.”
The bipartisan National Task Force on Election Crises said on Tuesday it was “past time” for the GSA administrator to certify Biden: “This isn’t about politics. It’s about honoring free and fair elections. It’s also about lost lives.”
Trump claims, without providing evidence, that the election was marred by widespread fraud and has fired off a flurry of lawsuits that judges have mostly rejected.
An administration official said the White House was not pressuring Murphy to withhold recognition of Biden as the winner.
2000 vs. 2020
Murphy is relying on precedent, her office said, citing the five-week delay after the 2000 election before Republican George W. Bush was declared the winner over Democrat Al Gore.
While the 2000 result hung on 537 votes in just one state – Florida – Trump would need to reverse Biden’s large margins in three of four closely contested states, something election experts say is virtually impossible.
The GSA did not say how or when Murphy would make her decision, and the agency has not responded to a congressional letter asking the same questions, a House of Representatives Subcommittee on Government Operations official said.
Trump administration sources said it was reasonable to wait until vote recounts are completed and the legal challenges have been resolved – a process that is continuing.
On Wednesday, the Trump campaign requested a partial recount in Wisconsin in two heavily Democratic counties.
Dave Barram, who was GSA administrator in 2000, said Murphy contacted him shortly before the election to discuss how he handled that year’s contested scenario.
“In 2000, there was no clear winner, and both Gore and Bush knew it. This is different. It’s getting overwhelmingly evident that Trump should concede,” Barram said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by David Shepardson and Jason Lange; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)