Congress mulls tightening eligibility for stimulus checks

Congress is eyeing tightening eligibility requirements on qualifying for the next stimulus check as it crafts its $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

President Biden is proposing a $1,400 stimulus check as part of his plan that is being used as the framework for the legislation on Capitol Hill. Democrats pledged that if they won the Georgia runoff elections, and the Senate majority, that they would quickly deliver more assistance. 

But there’s discussion about potentially making the third round of checks more targeted amid bipartisan concerns that, without changes, high-income households who weren’t previously eligible could get some form of payment. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that the thresholds for the next round of stimulus checks can be adjusted and are under discussion. 

“I think that's what most people have raised the issue on, both in the Senate and in the House. I, frankly, think that that is correct,” Hoyer said. “I don't want to speculate on the figure or a figure, but I think that may well be under consideration for adjustment from the one that was passed in December.” 

Biden’s plan doesn’t include specifics on the yearly income cap for qualifying for the full check, or how the amount of the payment would phase down for people who are above that ceiling. But lawmakers are sending warning signs against sticking with the income caps and the phase-out structure used during the first two rounds of checks. 

In a sign of where the debate on Capitol Hill is likely headed, the Senate voted 99-1 during an all-night marathon session in support of tightening eligibility requirements to ensure that “upper-income taxpayers are not eligible.”

The amendment is nonbinding, but the broad support is likely to put pressure on lawmakers crafting the bill to make changes in order to win over enough support to pass the coronavirus relief package. Democrats are using reconciliation to pass the bill, a budget tool that will let them bypass the 60-vote legislative filibuster in the Senate and the need for GOP support. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden is firmly sticking with the $1,400 amount for the next check, but is open to negotiating on who is eligible and how the checks are scaled down for individuals who make above the cap for receiving a full check. 

“It's the phase-out range that is … a variable under discussion in negotiations that are ongoing. There hasn't been a conclusion. But as the president has said, he is open to that discussion,” Jared Bernstein, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters during a White House briefing. 

But there’s not yet an agreement on what changes should be made to the eligibility or the structure of the checks.  

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who offered the amendment to tighten eligibility, wants to change the structure of the checks, so that no individual making above $75,000 per year or couples making above $150,000 per year gets a payment. 

Manchin’s proposal would have individuals who make up to $50,000 and couples who make up to $100,000 get the $1,400 payment. After that the amount would phase down until it hit a ceiling of $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples, his office confirmed. 

A group of Republicans have proposed going further by reducing the amount of the check from $1,400 to $1,000, with a $500 for adult dependents and children. Individuals who make up to $40,000 would get a $1,000 check, with the amount of the check phasing out altogether at $50,000.

While every senator but Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) supported the nonbinding amendment targeting the next round of relief checks, supporters acknowledged that the language was left intentionally vague. 

“I guess that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It depends who you want to talk to. But I think the point of the amendment is it's negotiable so we can try to get some folks on board,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told reporters. 

There have been broader conversations among senators about changing the phase-out structure. 

A previous proposal that passed the House late last year provided a $1,400 check amid bipartisan support for boosting the $600 payment included in the end-of-year coronavirus package to $2,000. 

But while it increased the amount of money, it kept the structure for how the payment phased out the same. If the bill had ultimately been signed into law instead of stalling in the Senate, it would have resulted in some higher-income individuals who were not previously eligible getting some form of payment, though not a full check. 

“I happen to agree that the Mnuchin formula on the cash payments should be revisited. The outcome of that Mnuchin formula was indefensible. ... So yes, I would be open to that,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters, referring to former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

But Democrats could also face resistance from lawmakers in both chambers if they try to adjust the eligibility for the checks. 

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) suggested that he was open to changing how the checks phased out, but that he would insist on sticking to the same income ceilings for receiving a full check: $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples. 

“We don't want to see people making $300,000 or $400,000 benefit from this,” he said. 

Democrats have campaigned for months on providing another round of direct checks if Americans handed them control of both the House, Senate and the White House for the first time in roughly a decade.

Biden, during a call with House Democrats, noted that one of the reasons he was sticking with the $1,400 figure is because he wasn’t “going to start my administration by breaking a promise to the American people.” 

Asked about changes to the $1.9 trillion proposal, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pointed to the recent runoff elections that gave Democrats the 50-50 majority. 

“We've had something of a referendum on our priorities. For example, that was what the Georgia Senate race was all about – was making sure that those $2,000 checks got out,” Wyden said. 

The two new senators from Georgia, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, both campaigned on delivering the checks.

Ossoff, asking about changing the income eligibility, urged his party to go big.

“I'm advocating that we go big,” he said, “and that we deliver as much direct relief to the people as we can.”