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Biden on precipice of first big win

Biden on precipice of first big win

by CRISTINA MARCOS | The Hill  |  Published on March 10, 2021

House Democrats are poised on Wednesday to approve the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and hand President Biden his first major legislative accomplishment 50 days into his term.

The package’s approval has not been absent of controversy or Democratic infighting.

Progressives were frustrated with changes made by Senate centrists to scale back stimulus checks and weekly supplemental unemployment insurance payments, and they are still stung by the fact that the final package does not include a $15 federal minimum wage.

Biden himself had to intervene a week ago as the Senate held the longest vote in its history and Democratic senators scurried behind the scenes to negotiate a deal on the unemployment language.

But progressives in the House are nevertheless now rallying behind the package as the best option with narrow majorities in both chambers.

Two Democrats voted against the measure the first time it moved through the House, but Democratic leaders on Tuesday said they expect that number to be cut in half Wednesday.

That’s partly because the $15 minimum wage hike is no longer in the bill. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), one of the two centrists who voted against the initial House version, plans to vote for the bill on the floor Wednesday.

Polls show the legislation is popular, and Democrats and the White House hope it will give them a political boost as vaccines are distributed and the nation continues to open up this spring and summer from the pandemic.

The House vote takes place a year after businesses and schools began closing across the nation because of the pandemic, though the spring-like weather at the Capitol on Wednesday matched growing optimism about both the COVID-19 fight and the economy’s trajectory.

Not a single Republican in the House or Senate is expected to approve the measure, and Democrats hope that opposition will come back to bite the GOP.

“All of it an opportunity for us to grow the economy by investing in the people for the people,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of the bill. “And I might say for our Republican colleagues who — they say no to the vote and they show up at the ribbon cuttings or the presentations.”

The bill’s popularity — particularly the largest-yet stimulus checks of up to $1,400 — hasn’t deterred Republicans from deriding it as overly expensive and partisan.

“We know, for sure, that it includes provisions that are not targeted, they’re not temporary, they’re not related to COVID, and it didn’t have to be this way,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican. “We could have had a bill that was a fraction of the cost of this one that could have gotten bipartisan approval and support.”

The bill is centered on $1,400 direct payments that will be sent to millions of Americans, something that House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said could begin as soon as next week.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Biden’s name will not appear on stimulus checks this time around, unlike those under former President Trump.

“We are doing everything in our power to expedite the payments and not delay them, which is why the president’s name will not appear on the memo line of this round of [stimulus] checks,” Psaki told reporters. “The checks will be signed by a career official at the Bureau of Fiscal Service. This is not about [Biden], this is about the American people getting relief.”

Democrats are moving quickly to get the bill signed into law before March 14, when current unemployment insurance benefits expire.

Democrats initially anticipated having to negotiate the latest pandemic relief package again with Republicans before winning both of Georgia’s Senate seats in early January. Ultimately, they were able to use the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process to pass the legislation with only Democratic votes.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle that we have gotten to this point,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.).

Most people who received checks under previous pandemic relief measures last year will get them again, but some who qualified before won’t in the latest round.

Individuals making $75,000 or less will still qualify for the full checks, but the phased-out partial payments will stop for those making more than $80,000 compared to the previous rounds that capped off for people earning up to $100,000.

Another change sought by Senate Democratic centrists keeps the weekly unemployment insurance boost at $300, rather than increasing it to $400 like the bill that originally passed the House earlier this month.

But the legislation now ensures that the first $10,200 of unemployment compensation for households with incomes under $150,000 is not subject to taxes.

The unemployment insurance payments will last through Sept. 6.

One major change will be the expansion of the child tax credit to $3,000 per child or $3,600 for children under the age of 6, up from the current $2,000 per child.

The expansion would expire next year, setting up a potential cliff for families who become dependent on it.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) predicted that the child tax credit change in the relief package would eventually become permanent.

“One thing that you should know about the tax code: Getting something out of the code is oftentimes harder than getting something in the code,” Neal said. “What we did is unlikely to go away.”

The legislation further includes more than $125 billion to help K-12 schools reopen for in-person classroom instruction; $10 billion to increase domestic production of personal protective equipment and vaccines under the Defense Production Act; $48 billion for COVID-19 testing and tracing; and $7.5 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine distribution efforts.

About 9 percent of the American public has been fully vaccinated, with the pace of vaccination expected to pick up in the coming months with increased supply. It’s unclear whether Congress will produce yet another pandemic-focused relief package this year or further extend the unemployment insurance when it expires in the fall.

“You’re just gonna have to ask the virus,” Pelosi said when a reporter asked Tuesday if this would be the last major pandemic relief measure.

“But it’s not anything anybody can predict. It’s just a question of the science. And we will have legislation to address it for as long as it’s there,” Pelosi said.

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