House Democrats move forward on Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan despite setback on minimum wage

Tray Ling

The vote was expected late Friday night. House passage would send the legislation to the Senate, where bigger fights await. The action in the House comes a day after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the $15 minimum wage increase in the legislation is not permitted under Senate rules. Nonetheless House […]

The vote was expected late Friday night. House passage would send the legislation to the Senate, where bigger fights await.

The action in the House comes a day after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the $15 minimum wage increase in the legislation is not permitted under Senate rules. Nonetheless House Democrats intend to pass the legislation with the $15 minimum wage included, and it’s unclear how the issue will ultimately get resolved.

Beyond the minimum wage increase, the sprawling relief bill centers on providing $1,400 stimulus payments to tens of millions of American households; extending enhanced federal unemployment benefits through August; providing $350 billion in aid to states, cities, U.S. territories, and tribal governments; and boosting funding for vaccine distribution and coronavirus testing, among myriad other measures such as nutritional assistance, housing aid, and money for schools.

Democrats hope to push the legislation through both chambers and get it signed into law by March 14, when enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire unless Congress acts first. It’s uncertain if disputes over the minimum wage or other issues could complicate that timeline.

On Thursday night, the Senate’s parliamentarian ruled the wage hike as currently written could not proceed under “reconciliation” — the budgetary maneuver Democrats are using to pass the stimulus bill through the Senate without GOP votes.

Liberals erupted in fury, with some even suggesting the nonpartisan parliamentarian should be fired, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the wage increase would stay in the bill — at least for now.

“The Senate parliamentarian’s ruling is disappointing; raising the minimum wage would give 27M+ Americans a raise during this devastating economic crisis. House Dems are determined to #FightFor15,” Pelosi said on Twitter. “This policy will remain in [the bill] and pass.”

As an alternative to the minimum wage increase, Senate Democrats are exploring a tax hike on large corporations that do not pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is considering a move to include the provision in the relief bill in the Senate, according to two Democratic aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking. It’s uncertain if the proposal would command enough support to advance.

The massive legislation comes even as the economy has been showing some signs of progress. Personal income rose 10 percent in January, the Commerce Department reported Friday, thanks largely to the December stimulus package Congress passed. New claims for unemployment insurance fell sharply last week, as covid cases continue to decrease and vaccine distribution becomes more widespread.

Still, only slightly more than half the 20 million jobs lost during the pandemic have returned, and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell has said the real unemployment rate is closer to 10 percent, meaning the economy has a long way to go to recover to its pre-pandemic levels.

Congressional Republicans argued Biden’s stimulus is poorly targeted, too expensive, and includes measures unrelated to the pandemic. Congress approved some $4 trillion to fight the pandemic last year, including $900 billion in December, and Republicans said that’s more than enough especially in light of signs the economy is improving.

“This isn’t a relief bill. It takes care of Democrats’ political allies while it fails to deliver for American families,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Friday. “We already know what is the best stimulus plan out there: It is to fully reopen our economy. To do that, we need our economy to go back to work, back to school and back to health.”

Democrats, however, argued that more assistance is sorely needed.

“Millions are going hungry and even more don’t know how they’ll pay next month’s rent,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.). “Their pain is our pain and we can’t expect them to ride this out without our help. This landmark and life-saving legislation is not a partisan wish list — it’s an American wish list.”

Ahead of the floor vote, Democrats and Republicans sparred angrily in the House Rules Committee over the legislation, with Republicans complaining they’d been shut out of negotiations. Democrats argued that even if the legislation did not command support among Republicans in Congress, it was broadly supported by the public and by many GOP mayors and some governors.

Biden made some efforts at bipartisan outreach after unveiling his proposal, including meeting with a group of 10 Senate Republicans who made a $618 billion counter-offer. He ultimately dismissed their ideas as too meager and made the decision to move forward without GOP support, repeatedly defending his proposal in recent days and challenging critics to to tell him “What would they have me cut?”

Republicans fumed over Democrats’ go-it-alone approach — but Democrats countered that Republicans took the same tack when they controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House at the start of the Trump administration and pushed through an unpaid-for $1.5 trillion tax cut bill.

House passage of the relief legislation appeared all but assured on Friday, but the outlook is trickier in the Senate, where moderate Democrats have raised questions about a number of provisions, including the structure of the state and local aid. The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, so if Republicans remain opposed Democrats can only pass the legislation if they stay united and Vice President Harris breaks the tie.

The “budget reconciliation” process allows legislation to pass the Senate with a simple majority vote, instead of the 60 votes usually required. But it also contains limitations, prohibiting certain measures that don’t impact the federal budget in particular ways. The parliamentarian determined that the minimum wage did not pass that test.

If the Senate passes the bill without the minimum wage increase and sends it back to the House, liberals will have to decide whether to support it anyway. For some, raising the minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour was their top priority in the bill, and they were irate over the parliamentarian’s decision. Some called on Schumer to try to overturn it or move to eliminate the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold that protects minority rights in the Senate.

“Democrats are just going to have to make a choice about using, really going to the mat and really using every lever of power that we have to govern for the majority of the American people,” said House Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) “In two years, I don’t think we can go back to voters and say ‘Look, I know Republicans, Democrats, independents support this, we promised it, but because of an unelected parliamentarian who gave us a ruling, we couldn’t do it’.”

The White House, however, has indicated that Biden intends to respect the parliamentarian’s ruling. And Democrats don’t have the votes to overrule the parliamentarian or eliminate the filibuster in the Senate anyway, because of opposition from at least two moderate Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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