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DJ House Approves Budget Resolution Setting Stage for Covid-19 Relief Package -- 2nd Update

· 02/05/2021 18:28
By Andrew Duehren

WASHINGTON -- Democrats moved forward with President Biden's $1.9 trillion relief plan, proceeding without Republican support as they approved a budget outline and raced to complete the package in the coming weeks.

In both the House and Senate Friday, Democrats passed a budget resolution that allows the party to skirt the 60-vote threshold for most legislation in the Senate, and instead pass the relief package in the 50-50 chamber with a simple majority.

Now, Democrats will turn to ironing out details of the package, including deciding who would be eligible for $1,400 direct payments and whether to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. With federal unemployment programs set to expire in mid-March, Democrats are hoping to speed through the tricky legislative process called reconciliation.

Mr. Biden said Friday that he hoped for backing from some Republicans on the aid bill but was prepared to move forward without it. "There are some really fine people who want to get something done," the president said Friday of Republicans. "But they're just not willing to go as far as I think we have to go."

The $1.9 trillion plan -- Democrats' first legislative push since winning control of the federal government -- enhances and extends unemployment assistance; provides funding for vaccine distribution; and sends funds to schools, child-care providers and state and local governments, among other provisions. Congress has passed roughly $4 trillion in economic relief since the pandemic began.

Republicans have argued that the proposal is too large and too close to the $900 billion package Congress approved in December, which has yet to be fully spent. Mr. Biden met earlier this week with a group of 10 Republican senators to discuss their alternative $618 billion proposal but has rejected it as too small.

The president met Friday with a group of top House Democrats involved in writing the legislation, the latest in a series of meetings he and his staff have held with lawmakers about the relief bill. At the meeting, House committee leaders presented various elements of the bill, and Rep. Richard Neal (D., Mass.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the group discussed who should receive the $1,400 direct payments outlined in Mr. Biden's plan.

Mr. Biden has indicated he is open to targeting distribution of the checks more narrowly. Some lawmakers are pushing to lower the income cutoffs for receiving the payments 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 before zeroing out.

Lawmakers and the president also discussed Congress taking up an infrastructure package after completing the relief measure, with Mr. Biden pointing to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.) and saying, "You're next."

The talks came as the latest employment report showed the labor market remained weak, with the U.S. economy adding 49,000 jobs in January after payrolls fell steeply in December. The president has pushed back against concerns that the relief package is too large. He said the 2009 recovery act "wasn't quite big enough" and that this time around, "We need an answer that meets the challenge of this crisis, not one to fall short."

The Senate adopted the budget resolution early Friday morning following an all-night "vote-a-rama" in which Republicans tried to put Democrats on the spot over the pace of school reopenings and raising the minimum wage, among other issues, during a lengthy amendment process. Vice President Kamala Harris cast her first tiebreaking votes in the Senate to advance the resolution.

While the amendments are largely symbolic and don't carry the force of law, they did indicate bipartisan support for keeping the U.S. embassy to Israel in Jerusalem and preventing high-income individuals from receiving direct checks. A Republican amendment to prevent raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour during a pandemic passed, though Democrats didn't contest it, arguing they were seeking to raise the federal floor to $15 gradually, not all at once during the pandemic.

Republicans have criticized both the substance of Mr. Biden's package and Democrats' decision to move forward with reconciliation, a tool both parties have used to approve their goals.

Rep. Jason Smith (R., Mo.), the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, attacked the proposal's $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, saying it amounted to a political favor.

"One piece of this debate that is increasingly obvious and concerning to me is how Democrats are pushing legislation that will rescue or reward their political allies in blue-state capitals across the country," he said.

House and Senate committees will now fill in the details of the aid legislation as the Senate also moves forward with the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, in which the former president stands accused of inciting the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The proceedings start in earnest next week.

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

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 opposed 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. Some supporters of the measure including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) have insisted on raising the minimum wage as part of the package.

Other lawmakers, including members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, 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 package. 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."

--Richard Rubin and Catherine Lucey contributed to this article.

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

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 05, 2021 18:28 ET (23:28 GMT)

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