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House passes Biden’s $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief bill

Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at a news conference Friday before the vote on the $1.9-trillion pandemic relief package, which she called “a great bill.”
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The House passed a $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief package early Saturday, pushing forward the aid millions of Americans have waited for as the country continues to grapple with the pandemic that has killed half a million Americans and crippled the economy.

The bill passed 219 to 212, on a nearly party-line vote well after midnight Eastern time. Two Democrats voted with all House Republicans in opposing the bill.

House Democrats included a $15 minimum wage in the legislation, even though the provision will probably be stripped out in the Senate, after that chamber’s parliamentarian advised it was not allowed under rules being used to pass the relief bill.

The Senate could pass its version of the bill as soon as next week using an expedited process called reconciliation. The White House wants a bill to President Biden before expanded unemployment benefits expire March 14.

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The relief bill includes $1,400 direct payments to tens of millions of people. The measure also contains billions for COVID-19 vaccines and coronavirus testing, for schools and state and local governments, emergency jobless benefits, and targeted aid to the ailing restaurant and airline industries.

Republicans call it an unnecessarily expensive Democratic boondoggle full of items not directly related to fighting the disease, such as transit projects in San Francisco and New York.

Biden’s proposal for $1.9 trillion more for COVID-19 aid is about to pass in the House. Then it’s the Senate’s turn. Here’s a look at the package.

Republicans have also taken issue with the $350 billion the package provides for state and local governments grappling with a loss of revenue during the economic downturn.

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The House Committee on Oversight and Reform estimates that California would receive $42 billion in aid, with $26.26 billion going to the state government and the rest going directly to city and county governments.

Once the bill arrives in the Senate, Democrats are expected to strip the provision that would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 hourly by 2025. It has been $7.25 since 2009.

Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough advised Thursday that the reconciliation process cannot be used to raise the national minimum wage. Reconciliation allows a bill to pass through the Senate with a simple 51-vote majority, a number the 48 Democrats and two independents in the Senate can reach with an assist from Vice President Kamala Harris. Senate rules require a 60-vote threshold to pass most bills without a filibuster.

But the reconciliation process is limited to issues directly dealing with the budget and spending and is not meant for policy changes.

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Progressives in the House are urging Senate Democrats to override the decision.

“We made a promise to raise the minimum wage,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters Friday. “We now have to deliver on that promise to 27 million Americans who are not going to be much convinced when we go back in two years and say, ‘Sorry, the unelected parliamentarian told us we couldn’t raise the minimum wage.’”

Senate Democrats have indicated they do not plan to overrule the parliamentarian to move forward with the popular wage increase, and Biden advisors said Friday the president would leave the decision to senators.

The Senate parliamentarian has dealt a potentially lethal blow to Democrats’ drive to hike the minimum wage, deciding that the cherished progressive goal must fall from a massive COVID-19 relief bill the party is trying to speed through Congress.

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“I hesitate about overruling parliamentarians, largely because the day will come when we conceivably will be happy with the ruling of a parliamentarian,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) told reporters Friday. “I’ve seen how shifting sands of legislative life have altered as rules changes come along.”

On Friday, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were discussing whether to instead include in the relief bill a tax penalty for large corporations that don’t set a $15 minimum wage and a tax incentive for small businesses to make the change. Past parliamentarians have advised that changes to tax law are acceptable.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) disparaged the idea.

“I think it’s stupid. I think it’s a tax increase,” McCarthy told reporters. “What does it have to do with COVID? Does [that] put anybody back to work? The kids back to school? Or to better health or a vaccine to any American who wants it?”

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Democrats have pledged to continue pushing for the increase, and are also discussing stand-alone legislation, something the 60-vote threshold in the Senate could make difficult.

Raising the minimum wage helped unify House Democrats behind the package. Some progressives initially said the bill doesn’t go far enough to help people.

But House Democratic leaders were confident Friday they would have the votes to pass the bill if the Senate strips the minimum-wage portion of the bill.

“Let us not be distracted from what is in here, because it is a great bill,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said.


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