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DJ GOP Puts Minimum Wage, School Reopenings in Covid-19 Aid Spotlight -- 4th Update

· 02/04/2021 21:16
By Andrew Duehren

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans unleashed a blitz of amendments to President Biden's $1.9 trillion relief plan, seeking to put Democrats on the spot over raising the minimum wage and the pace of school reopenings, among other issues.

Under the special procedure Democrats are using to pass the $1.9 trillion plan, Republicans can offer an unlimited number of amendments to the budget resolution the Senate is now considering. Passing the budget resolution will move Democrats forward with reconciliation, a process that allows the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority. The House approved the budget resolution Wednesday.

Because the budget is nonbinding and never becomes law, the amendment votes are largely symbolic, a factor that can influence how much support they receive. Republicans offered amendments on cutting federal funding to states that have an active investigation into underreported deaths in nursing homes and blocking aid for schools that don't reopen after teachers have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is under fire over nursing-home deaths, and several states and cities are grappling with teachers unions, a key Democratic constituency, over when to reopen schools. Both the amendment on reporting nursing-home deaths and the amendment on reopening schools failed in the Democratic-controlled chamber.

Another amendment in the mix would prevent Congress from raising the federal minimum wage during a pandemic; Mr. Biden's relief plan calls for gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. His proposal would also bolster federal unemployment assistance, send $1,400 direct checks to many Americans, provide funds for vaccine distribution and offer aid to schools.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and a group of bipartisan senators offered an amendment that seeks "to ensure upper-income taxpayers are not eligible" for the $1,400 payments in Mr. Biden's plan. While the amendment doesn't specify an income threshold for the payments and wouldn't carry the force of law, it is another sign of the bipartisan desire to more narrowly target the checks. The Senate approved it nearly unanimously, 99-1.

Mr. Biden has said he is open to offering the payments to a smaller group of Americans.

The president is scheduled to hold an Oval Office meeting Friday morning with leading House Democrats and committee heads involved in advancing the relief package.

The marathon of amendments, known as a "vote-a-rama" in the Senate, gives lawmakers a chance to attempt to shape Mr. Biden's plan. For Republicans, it is also an opportunity to score political points by forcing Democrats to take possibly unpalatable votes. Lawmakers prepared to take dozens of votes into the night Thursday and possibly into Friday morning.

Several amendments to the budget resolution succeeded, though they were symbolic and might not become law. One calls for creating a fund to provide aid for restaurants and dining services, while another moves to prevent tax increases on small businesses during the pandemic. The Senate voted 58-42 to prevent immigrants without permanent legal status from receiving direct payments.

Many GOP lawmakers have opposed Mr. Biden's plan because of its cost and proximity to the last relief package, a $900 billion round passed in December. They have also criticized Democrats' embrace of reconciliation, a tool both parties have previously used to pass their priorities.

"Let's hope President Biden remembers the governing approach he promised and changes course. In the meantime, if we're to debate this phony, partisan budget, we will create some clarity for the American people," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Thursday. "We're going to put senators on the record."

A group of 10 Republicans floated an alternative aid plan, about a third of the size of Mr. Biden's proposal, and met with him at the White House this week. That group sent a letter to the White House Thursday, questioning the amount of education funding in his proposal and asked for additional data about Mr. Biden's plan.

Mr. Biden has said the GOP proposal is too small, and Democrats have largely rallied around the president's plan, arguing that another large relief bill will help shore up the economy and help struggling households and businesses.

"I sincerely hope our Republican colleagues approach our work today with the intention of having serious ideas considered, not using the debate over pandemic relief to sharpen ephemeral partisan talking points," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Thursday.

After the amendment process ends, the Senate can vote on the budget resolution. If the Senate approves any changes to the resolution, the House will have to vote on the changed resolution. Once it is passed, committees will begin writing the substance of the relief bill.

The question of whether to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour has divided Democrats so far. At least one Democrat, Mr. Manchin, has publicly said he is opposed to doing so, and Democrats can't afford to lose a single vote in the 50-50 Senate.

Some lawmakers also question whether raising the minimum wage is possible under the reconciliation process, which limits policy provisions to measures with direct budgetary effects. Others, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), have argued that Democrats can and must raise the minimum wage through reconciliation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said during a Thursday press conference that Democrats would attempt to raise the minimum wage later if they can't do so in reconciliation.

"That's a very high priority for us. We hope we can get it in reconciliation. I'm a veteran of reconciliation bills over time and I know the, shall we say the struggle it frequently is," she said. "In any event we're very proud of the legislation. It's not the last bill that we'll pass."

The White House reiterated Thursday that raising the minimum wage is important to Mr. Biden, but that the determination on whether it could be passed through reconciliation is in the Senate's hands.

"There's obviously a process that's ongoing, the reconciliation process, that will make some determinations about what can and cannot be in the bill based on rules," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

The minimum wage is just one of the policy debates happening now among Democrats. They are also deciding who should be eligible for the $1,400 direct payments under Mr. Biden's plan, with some lawmakers pushing to drop the income cutoffs to $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for married couples, down from $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples.

A few House Democrats are also pushing for Congress to take up a narrow bill focused on funding for vaccine production and distribution as a precursor to a larger bill. The White House and top Democrats have so far rejected splitting up the bill into multiple parts.

--Alex Leary contributed to this article.

Write to Andrew Duehren at andrew.duehren@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 04, 2021 21:16 ET (02:16 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.