WASHINGTON — The Democratically-controlled House approved President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package early Saturday, a key step for a measure that would provide millions of Americans $1,400 stimulus payments, ramp up vaccine distribution and extend unemployment aid through the summer.
The bill, known as the American Rescue Plan, passed 219-212. No Republicans voted for it, and two Democrats voted against it: Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Jared Golden, D-Maine.
The measure now heads to the Senate where it faces a rocky path in the evenly divided chamber.
No Senate Republicans are expected to support the bill, citing its size and scope, so the president will have to count on every one of the 50 Democratic senators — and a tie-breaking 51st vote from Vice President Kamala Harris — to make sure its key pillars remain in the bill.
“It’s a great day for us to take a vote to reduce the spread of this virus…put vaccinations in the arms of the American people, money into the pockets, children into the schools, workers back into their jobs, so that we can go forward,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said before the vote. “I salute President Biden for his American Rescue Plan.”
The bill passed by the House would:
- Provide most Americans with another direct payment — this time for $1,400. (Republicans have proposed $1,000).
- Extend federal bonus to unemployment benefits through August (the current benefit ends in mid-March) and bump up the amount to $400 per week. (Republicans want $300 a week through June).
- Send $350 billion to state and local governments whose revenues have declined due to COVID social distancing measures (Republicans oppose any such “bailout”).
- Allocate $130 billion to help fully reopen schools and colleges (Republicans are countering with $50 billion).
- Allot $30 billion to help renters and landlords weather economic losses (Republicans oppose any amount).
- Set aside $50 billion for small-business assistance (Republicans agree).
- Appropriate $160 billion for vaccine development, distribution and related needs (Republicans also agree).
Biden and Democrats want the bill passed by mid-March, before the current unemployment insurance benefits provided in an earlier relief package expires.
Republicans have largely lined up in opposition to the plan. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., derided it as a “bloated plan with unrelated policies.”
Though some support some elements of Biden’s proposal, Senate Republicans say the American Rescue Plan includes money for programs with little or no connection to the pandemic’s economic fallout. Chief among them is the $350 billion for states and local governments that GOP lawmakers say is nothing but a “blue state bailout” for jurisdictions that have been poorly managed by Democrats.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the senators behind a $618 billion GOP counterproposal, said she doesn’t expect a single Republican to support the House bill, “even if we’re able to make some beneficial changes.”
“The administration has not indicated a willingness to come down from its $1.9 trillion figure, and that’s a major obstacle,” she said Tuesday.
The House bill also includes a controversial provision to increase the national hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 by 2025 that proponents say is necessary to help the country recover economically but that opponents contend would force businesses to cut back.
Though a Pew Research poll found two-thirds of Americans back a $15 wage, Senate Republicans and at least two Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — oppose such an increase.
But a $15 federal minimum wage won’t make it into the final bill. A key Senate official on Thursday ruled the provision can’t even be included in the COVID package because it doesn’t qualify as a budgetary issue. That ruling makes it ineligible to be considered with the rest of the relief package under a budgetary process known as reconciliation where bills can be enacted with 51 votes instead of needing the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
With a minimum wage provision looking unachievable, Senate Democrats are seeking another way to raise hourly wages.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was considering amending the relief package with a provision to penalize large corporations who did not pay their workers at least $15 per hour, according to a senior Democratic aide speaking on condition of anonymity, though the details of the provision were not yet available.
Any change in the Senate to the bill would delay relief because the measure would have to go back to the House.
Even if the minimum wage provision were removed from the bill, Pelosi said Friday the House would “absolutely” be able to pass the bill.
“We have a consensus in our caucus that we’re here to get the job done for the American people,” she said.
Source: USA Today – Breaking News