Democrats in the Senate took the first steps Tuesday toward passing President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, but negotiations continued on the details of who will receive stimulus checks and how big they will be.
One possible sticking point is whether the relief checks to qualifying recipients will be $2,000, which is the figure Biden and many Democrats campaigned on, or $1,400, which on top of the $600 provided for in an earlier bill brings the total to $2,000.
All 50 Democratic senators voted Tuesday to start the budget reconciliation process, which would allow them — if every senator supported the final bill and Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote — to pass the coronavirus relief bill the White House has been promising without any Republican votes. Reconciliation is a tactic for passing bills that have an impact on the federal budget with a simple majority, rather than the three-fifths margin (60 votes) necessary to overcome a filibuster. The bill is being considered in the Senate Budget Committee, whose new chairman is Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Democrats could in theory dispense with the filibuster altogether, but some members of the caucus have been reluctant to take that step.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is considered a key vote on the relief package. He said he was open to the proposal on Tuesday, but said he thought the $15 minimum wage in the bill was too high. “I’m supportive of basically having something that’s responsible and reasonable," Manchin told The Hill. In West Virginia, he said, that would be closer to $11 an hour.
Any relief “must be targeted on the COVID-19 crisis and Americans who have been most impacted by this pandemic," he added.
On Wednesday morning, Manchin said he wasn’t opposed to the administration’s $1.9 trillion price tag but wanted a bipartisan process. He added that Biden told him he wanted to avoid a repeat of 2009, when Republicans extended negotiations for months with the Obama White House and in the end didn’t support the relief bill. The final bill may not contain all the provisions sought by Biden, but Democratic leaders said they were optimistic.
“The Senate is going to move forward this week with the process for producing the next bold rescue package,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “Time is a luxury our country does not have, and let me be very clear. … We are not going to dilute, dither or delay.”
“The sentiment is positive,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., of getting the 50 votes to move forward with the process. “We don’t ask for an oath in writing, but we’re proceeding with a positive feeling."
More than 447,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, and millions continue to deal with job losses. With expanded unemployment benefits set to expire in mid-March, there’s a hard deadline for Congress to act to avoid having millions of Americans lose their primary source of income. A December report from Columbia University projected at the time that without the expanded unemployment benefits being renewed, 4.8 million Americans — who in many instances are already dealing with delayed benefit redistribution — risked falling into poverty.
“I feel good that we’ve identified what needs to be done and have a plan for getting it done. I worry about delay, every day that goes by that doesn’t pass,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “That’s been the Republican approach from the beginning; it’s Mitch McConnell’s approach: hold up, hold up, hold up.”
Republican senators have criticized both the price tag of the Biden plan and the Democrats’ strategy of using reconciliation. But all the GOP members who were in the Senate in 2017 used reconciliation to pass a multitrillion-dollar tax cut targeted to the wealthiest Americans. The GOP also attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act via reconciliation, but fell a vote short.
The size of the checks Americans will receive and who will actually receive them is still open to negotiation. The Washington Post reported that Republicans and some centrist Democrats were pushing to lower the income threshold for phasing out the stimulus payments, which had previously sat at $75,000, zeroing out at $100,000 per individual. The proposal from 10 Republican senators who met with Biden on Monday would lower the threshold to $50,000 and the size of the check to $1,000.
The opposition to targeted relief stems from concerns that people who were above the threshold based on 2019 income may now be unemployed and in need of assistance.
“Further targeting means not the size of the check, it means the income level of people who receive the check and that’s something that has been under discussion,” press secretary Jen Psaki said at Wednesday’s briefing. “There hasn’t been a conclusion but certainly he’s open to having that discussion.”
The full Republican proposal is about a third of the size of the Biden plan. It would strip out grants to state and local governments, and cut back federal unemployment insurance, both in length (until June in the GOP proposal versus September) and amount ($300 per week versus $400). Following the Monday meeting, the White House said, “While there were areas of agreement, the president also reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas which the Republican senators’ proposal does not address.” Biden reportedly urged Senate Democrats to hold the line in a Tuesday call.
Biden has said his plan is to meet his campaign promise of $2,000 in relief by sending out checks for $1,400, which would be added to the $600 contained in the “skinny” December relief bill. Others in the party consider that a bait-and-switch. A video of various Democratic officials — including the two new Georgia senators who campaigned on the $2,000 pledge, and Biden and Vice President Harris themselves — promising $2,000 checks has nearly 2 million views on Twitter.
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