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Senate Moves Forward With Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Covid-19 Relief Plan

Vice President Kamala Harris cast her first tie-breaking votes in the Senate to advance the resolution. Senate Moves Forward With Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Covid-19 Relief Plan

Approval comes after Republicans offered amendments to budget bill.

The Senate approved a budget plan for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package early Friday, after Republicans tried to put Democrats on the spot on the pace of school reopenings and raising the minimum wage, among other issues, during a lengthy amendment process.

Under the special procedure Democrats are using to pass the $1.9 trillion plan, lawmakers offered a host of amendments to the budget resolution, beginning votes Thursday afternoon and ending them after 5:30 a.m. Friday. Passing the budget resolution advanced the reconciliation process, which will allow Democrats to pass the $1.9 trillion relief plan with a simple majority in the Senate.

The House, which earlier passed its own budget resolution, will take up the Senate’s version after its passage.

House and Senate committees will now start a weeks-long process of working on their individual pieces of the actual aid legislation, though the Senate’s work may be somewhat slower because of the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump that starts in earnest next week. The House and Senate must approve identical versions of any subsequent legislation, and lawmakers hope to do so before expanded unemployment benefits lapse in mid-March.

Because the budget is nonbinding and never becomes law, the amendment votes were largely symbolic, a factor that can influence how much support they receive. Early in the process, Republicans offered amendments on cutting federal funding to states that have an active investigation into underreported deaths in nursing homes and blocking aid for schools that don’t reopen after teachers have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is under fire over nursing-home deaths, and several states and cities are grappling with teachers unions, a key Democratic constituency, over when to reopen schools. Both the amendment on reporting nursing-home deaths and the amendment on reopening schools failed in the Democratic-controlled chamber.

Another GOP amendment aims to prevent Congress from raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour during a pandemic; Mr. Biden’s relief plan calls for gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. His proposal would also bolster federal unemployment assistance, send $1,400 direct checks to many Americans, provide funds for vaccine distribution and offer aid to schools.

The Senate approved the amendment on a voice vote after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), a leading proponent for raising the minimum wage, said Democrats want to raise it over several years.

“I will do everything that I can to make sure a $15 an hour minimum wage is included in this reconciliation bill, but there appears to be some misunderstanding,” Mr. Sanders said. “It was never my intention to raise the minimum wage immediately and during the pandemic.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and a group of bipartisan senators offered an amendment that seeks “to ensure upper-income taxpayers are not eligible” for the $1,400 payments in Mr. Biden’s plan.

Mr. Biden has said he is open to offering the payments to a smaller group of Americans.

The president is scheduled to hold an Oval Office meeting Friday morning with leading House Democrats and committee heads involved in advancing the relief package.

Biden Vows No Retreat On $1,400 Checks, Open To Tightening Rules

President Joe Biden told House Democrats on Wednesday that while he was open to tightening the eligibility for his proposed $1,400 stimulus checks, any move to cut the payments’ base amount would mean starting his presidency with a broken promise.

Biden signaled he wasn’t willing to reduce the standard $1,400 checks, which phase out based on income totals, that were outlined in his aid package, according to participants on the call. Top Senate Democrats said following a subsequent meeting that they were united in pursuing a “big and bold” package.

“We cannot dawdle, we cannot delay, we cannot dilute,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said of Biden’s $1.9 trillion total package, adding that lawmakers and the White House were “united as one” for a big bill.

Republican lawmakers have suggested both reducing the amount of the next round of stimulus checks and sending them to a smaller group of Americans. But shrinking the payment means Biden wouldn’t be able to deliver his campaign promise of $2,000 payments to many Americans, a total that includes previous $600 payments.

Senate Republicans have proposed issuing $1,000 payments for individuals earning as much as $40,000 or couples making twice that, and completely phasing out the payments by $50,000 for singles or $100,000 for married couples.

Bipartisan Prediction

Despite those differences, Biden told reporters during an Oval Office meeting with Democrats: “I think we’ll get some Republicans.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden is open to working with Republicans, but that the president is in lockstep with his staff members, who have urged Democrats to go along with the administration’s plan.

“We will see what proposals that improve the bill, that make it better,” Psaki said. “And there’s certainly an openness to that.”

Schumer said that Democrats “want to do it bipartisan, but we must be strong.”

“We hope our Republican colleagues will join us in that big, bold program that America needs,” he said.

Individuals earning up to $75,000 or couples making as much as $150,000 were eligible for the full stimulus payments in the previous two rounds of coronavirus relief enacted last year. Above those levels, the payments phased out gradually.

Congressional Democrats are weighing whether to begin phasing down payments at $50,000 per individual and $100,000 per couple.

Biden also told lawmakers he was more concerned that they would spend too little on a recovery package rather than too much, addressing reservations among some on Capitol Hill who say his proposal is too costly. He added that lawmakers should act quickly on his plan, which also includes billions for vaccine development and distribution along with a minimum wage hike.

Some progressive Democrats are seeking even higher payments, arguing that to fulfill his promise to voters, Biden must increase the checks to $2,000 on top of the $600. The White House has pushed back on that idea.

Biden held at least two meetings at the White House with Democratic senators on Wednesday: first, with Chris Coons and Tom Carper of Delaware, and subsequently with Schumer, Vice President Kamala Harris, and committee leaders. That included Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders.

The sessions come a day after Senate Democrats put the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan on a fast track, increasing the likelihood it eventually passes on a party-line vote. And Biden met earlier this week with a group of 10 Republican senators to discuss their counter-proposal, though the talks did not yield a bipartisan agreement.

With a 50-49 vote Tuesday, the Senate opened debate on a budget resolution for the 2021 fiscal year, a maneuver that would clear the way for the president’s relief plan to pass in the chamber with a simple majority rather than the 60-vote threshold required for most legislation.

The Senate will take up final passage of the resolution on Thursday. The House passed its version of the budget Wednesday evening.

Schumer has said that the process, known as budget reconciliation, is open to GOP participation and the stimulus package can still be tweaked with their input. But he said Democrats won’t risk moving slowly or timidly to bolster the economy.

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