House Democrats pass sweeping $1.9T COVID-19 relief bill


House Democrats passed their sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package in a party-line vote early Saturday morning, advancing President Biden’s top legislative priority.

Lawmakers passed the bill 219-212, with two Democrats — Reps. Jared Golden (Maine) and Kurt Schrader (Ore.) — joining all Republicans in voting against it. Democrats could only afford up to four defections with their narrow House majority.

The bill's passage comes days after the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. surpassed 500,000 people while more contagious virus variants remain a threat to containing the pandemic.

Lawmakers are hoping to build on the momentum from vaccines gradually reaching people to end the global pandemic that’s shaken up American life for most of the past year. 

The relief package now heads to the Senate, where Democrats are expected to amend it next week and send it back to the House for approval before unemployment insurance benefits expire on March 14.

The legislation, which was modeled after Biden’s proposal, includes provisions to provide a third round of direct stimulus checks of up to $1,400 for individuals, a $400 weekly unemployment insurance boost through Aug. 29, and $8.5 billion in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to distribute, track and promote public confidence in COVID-19 vaccines.

The direct payments of up to $1,400 for individuals or $2,800 for married couples are the largest pandemic impact payments yet, after the two previous rounds last year maxed out at $1,200 and $600. 

Individuals with incomes of up to $75,000 and married couples earning up to $150,000 would be eligible for the full amounts, while the payments would phase out for individuals making up to $100,000 or $200,000 for couples.

Other key parts of the massive package include $350 billion for state and local governments, $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen for in-person classroom instruction, and an expansion of the child tax credit to $3,000 per child or $3,600 for children under six years of age. 

But one component of the bill that the House passed early Saturday is doomed to be left on the cutting room floor once it reaches the Senate: an increase in the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour to $15. 

The Senate parliamentarian ruled on Thursday that the minimum wage hike would not comply with the budget rules required to pass bills under the reconciliation process, which Democrats are using so that their pandemic relief package won’t be subject to a GOP filibuster in the upper chamber. 

House Democrats opted to keep the minimum wage provision in the bill as a show of support for the top progressive priority. 

“Even if it is inconceivable to some, it is inevitable to us. And we will work diligently to shorten the distance between the inevitable and the inconceivable,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of raising the wage. 

The push to raise the minimum wage to $15 has been met with strong pushback from Republicans and a handful of centrist Democratic lawmakers, who cited a Congressional Budget Office report estimating that while it would lift 900,000 people out of poverty, it would also lead to 1.4 million job losses.

Only one sitting House Democrat, Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.), voted against a bill in 2019 to raise the minimum wage to $15. While Schrader’s preference for a regionally-adjusted minimum wage over a federal statute for $15 didn’t threaten the relief package’s prospects in the House, it’s a more delicate balance for Democrats’ 50-50 standing in the Senate.

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) both expressed opposition to including the $15 minimum wage as part of the COVID-19 relief package. Manchin has called for increasing the minimum wage to $11 per hour instead, arguing it’s a more reasonable level for a state like West Virginia.

Democrats are weighing proposals from Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would impose penalties on large corporations that don’t pay employees at least $15 an hour and incentivize small businesses to increase workers’ wages. 

A senior Democratic aide said Friday that Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is considering adding such a provision to the relief package, while top House Democrats were still noncommittal on the idea.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), meanwhile, called the tax incentive proposal “stupid” and questioned why the minimum wage and other provisions were attached to a bill related to coronavirus relief. 

“The swamp is back,” McCarthy declared during House floor debate. “To my colleagues who say this bill is bold, I say it's bloated. To those who say it's urgent, I say it's unfocused. To those who say it is popular, I say it is entirely partisan. It has the wrong priorities.”

The final vote on the pandemic relief package didn’t occur until well after midnight on Saturday because Republicans delayed proceedings for several hours by speaking before the House Rules Committee on the more than 200 amendments they submitted to the bill. 

None of the GOP amendments, which ran the gamut from stripping the bill of the minimum wage provision to requiring K-12 schools to have reopening plans for in-person teaching in place in order to access full funding, were granted floor time. 

It’s possible that Democrats could pass a separate bill to increase the minimum wage, but it would be subject to a 60-vote threshold to clear a Senate GOP filibuster. 

"I guarantee you there'll be a raise in the minimum wage before the election," House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) told reporters in the Capitol. "Hold me to it."

Progressives are calling for Vice President Harris, the president of the Senate, to overrule the parliamentarian’s advisory opinion or for Democrats to abolish the filibuster to ensure that the campaign promise of a minimum wage increase can eventually become law under Biden.

“So it's not just about minimum wage, because Democrats made a lot of promises in winning the House, the Senate and the White House. And it's going to come up again and again. So we're gonna have to make a choice here. Are we going to stick to these rules or are we actually going to use the levers of government to work for the people?" said Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

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