WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including $1,400 personal checks, is likely to get closer to becoming law Friday – but it’s about to get a rude welcome in the divided Senate, where lawmakers are sparring over major aspects of the legislation.
The Democratic-controlled House is poised to pass the American Rescue Plan on a largely party-line vote Friday. That might be the easy part.
In a 50-50 Senate, questions over the scope and size of a bill that would provide billions to cash-strapped local and state governments, help schools reopen and more than double the federal hourly minimum age to $15 could force a major reshaping of the legislation,or put its passage in jeopardy.
That debate will start in earnest next week, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., implored his colleagues to move “boldly and decisively” against the pandemic by passing the president’s initiative even as the rate of coronavirus deaths and infections is declining.
“We cannot slow down before the race is won,” he said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Despite the call for unity and the president’s push for bipartisanship, the bill is unlikely to get any GOP support.
More:5 charts show the wide gap between Biden’s, Republicans’ coronavirus aid proposals
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the senators behind a $618 billion counterproposal, said she doesn’t expect a single Republican to support the larger package, “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.
More:Where Biden’s COVID-19 plan, including relief checks, stands in Congress; House to vote Friday
Passage of the relief bill might have gotten easier Thursday night with a ruling from the Senate parliamentarian that a provision to raise the federal hourly minimum wage to $15 cannot be included in the bill under the budgetary process being used.
Although the ruling disappointed Democrats, including Biden, it removes a potential stumbling block that could have scuttled final passage.
Two Democratic senators – Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – said they won’t support raising the minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $15 by 2025 as Democratic leaders proposed. And it appears the president needs every Senate Democrat to support the package if it’s to pass.
Biden’s far-reaching legislation would send another round of checks to most Americans – this time for $1,400 (Republicans countered with $1,000). It would extend a federal bonus to unemployment benefits through August and bump up the amount to $400 per week (Republicans want $300 a week through June). And it would send $350 billion to state and local governments (Republicans oppose any such “bailout”).
Republicans don’t agree with the amount of aid the Biden plan would provide to reopen schools and help renters and landlords. Both sides agree on the amounts that should be set aside for small-business assistance ($50 billion) and for vaccine development, distribution and related needs ($160 billion)
Critics said the legislation reaches beyond its core mission of COVID-19 relief. In doing so, they said, it risks a spike in inflation that could derail economic recovery or further swell the nation’s $28 trillion debt, leaving little political will for other vital investments and pushing up borrowing costs for consumers and businesses.
More:As the economy heals, is Biden’s $1.9T COVID-19 relief package too much?
“While the package is filled with good ideas and important priorities, it is fair to say it could be targeted much better,” says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a nonprofit watchdog group.
The CRFB identified more than $310 billion in spending that it said has little to do with the pandemic and $500 billion that could be cut without fundamentally changing the package.
Others said the American Rescue Plan is a fitting response to a health crisis that triggered the worst recession in U.S. history and, despite a robust partial recovery, has left 10 million Americans unemployed, led millions of others to drop out of the workforce and shuttered hundreds of thousands of small businesses.
“The president’s view is that this is a package that will help get the pandemic under control; it will help put people back to work,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “This is a plan that he remains committed to, and he is hopeful that Republicans, many in Congress, will follow what their constituents want. And the American people clearly want this rescue plan passed. They clearly want money for vaccinations. They clearly want schools to reopen and funding to reopen schools. And they clearly want direct checks.”
Contributing: Paul Davidson