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DJ Biden Meets With House Democrats as Covid-19 Aid Plan Advances

· 02/05/2021 11:20
By Andrew Duehren

WASHINGTON -- President Biden met Friday with top House Democrats who will soon advance his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package, after the Senate approved a budget plan for the legislation, as lawmakers wrestled over details of the proposed minimum-wage increase and stimulus checks.

"Real live people are hurting and we can fix it," said Mr. Biden at the outset of the meeting, after a jobs report that showed the labor market remained weak.

The Senate adopted the budget resolution following an all-night "vote-a-rama" in which Republicans tried to put Democrats on the spot on the pace of school reopenings and raising the minimum wage, among other issues, during a lengthy amendment process. The budget resolution advances the reconciliation process, which will allow Democrats to pass the $1.9 trillion relief plan with a simple majority in the Senate.

The House, which earlier passed its own budget resolution, will now take up the Senate's version on Friday. Vice President Kamala Harris cast her first tiebreaking votes in the Senate to advance the resolution.

Mr. Biden said during the meeting Friday the lessons from the Obama administration's work on economic recovery were guiding the coronavirus relief efforts. "We can't do too much here but we can do too little."

House and Senate committees will now start a weekslong process of filling in the details of the actual aid legislation, though the Senate's work may be somewhat slower because of the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump that starts in earnest next week. The House and Senate must approve identical versions of any subsequent legislation, and lawmakers hope to do so before expanded unemployment benefits lapse in mid-March.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) told members in a letter Friday that she hopes to finish in the House by the end of February.

"Our work to crush the coronavirus and deliver relief to the American people is urgent and of the highest priority," she wrote in advance of the meeting with Mr. Biden.

Mr. Biden's aid 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.

Because the budget is nonbinding and never becomes law, the amendment votes were largely symbolic, a factor that can influence how much support they receive.

Among the amendments that passed, the Senate voted 58-42 to prevent immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally from receiving direct payments. Senators also agreed overwhelmingly to keep the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

Another GOP amendment aimed to prevent Congress from raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour during a pandemic; Mr. Biden's relief plan calls for gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The Senate approved the amendment on a voice vote after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), a leading proponent for raising the minimum wage, said Democrats want to raise it over several years, not immediately, so he had no objection to the measure.

Many amendments Republicans offered, including several related to abortion, failed.

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.

A group of 10 Republicans have 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.

Once the budget resolution clears both the House and Senate, the chambers will move forward with crafting the substance of the $1.9 trillion plan.

The question of whether to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour has divided Democrats so far. At least one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, 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 whose budgetary effects aren't merely incidental to the policy aims.

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. Above those levels, the payments would shrink.

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.

The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to vote late next week on its piece of the bill, including tax changes and the stimulus payments.

"Republicans expect to offer substantive amendments that attempt to turn what is no stimulus at all in the Covid package into something that really works," said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the panel's top Republican. "We are eager to work with the president and the White House on crushing this virus. We think there's a great deal of common ground there."

--Alex Leary, Richard Rubin and Eliza Collins contributed to this article.

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

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 05, 2021 11:20 ET (16:20 GMT)

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