House set to pass Biden’s $1.9T pandemic relief package

Five weeks into Biden’s presidency, Democratic leaders remain dogged in their effort to fulfill his pricey ambitions to beat back the coronavirus and buttress the U.S. economy while more than 10 million Americans remain unemployed. Still, it could be at least another week or two before the new president’s legislative proposal clears Congress and lands on his desk. Democrats say Biden must sign the bill before March 14, a critical deadline for federal unemployment aid.

Ahead of the vote, the White House released a statement of support, noting that it would help the administration “change the course” of the pandemic and “provide Americans and their communities an economic bridge through the crisis.”

Guaranteeing the package will ping-pong between the House and Senate at least three times, Democrats in the lower chamber have decided not to strip out language that would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from their version of the bill. That provision is almost guaranteed to fall off of the bill in the Senate, where the parliamentarian ruled late Thursday that the wage increase does not work under budget rules Democrats are invoking to pass the stimulus package with a simple majority.

Senate Democrats have opted against moving to cut a bipartisan deal that would attract enough Republican support to clear under a 60-vote threshold.

Progressives on Friday continued to advocate for overruling the parliamentarian’s decision — a move that does not have the votes in the Senate.

“For me, the issue here is, we made a promise to raise the minimum wage,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We now have to deliver on that promise to 27 million Americans who aren’t 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.’”

As an alternative, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is considering adding language to the bill that would penalize large corporations that fail to pay workers at least $15 an hour, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide. Such a plan already has bipartisan backing from Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said retaining the original minimum wage language for House passage sends a signal to U.S. workers that Democrats will find a way to enact the wage increase despite its dashed chances in the relief package at hand.

“Democrats in the House are determined to pursue every possible path in the Fight For 15,” Pelosi said in a statement Thursday night.

House Democratic leaders are confident they will clear the bill later Friday evening. Still, not every Democrat will support the measure.

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who belongs to the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, said he was “leaning no,” citing new spending for programs he saw unrelated to the pandemic or unnecessary for higher-income families.

“The child care tax credits aren’t targeted to low-income [families]. People at $400,000 can get those,” Schrader said. “And minimum wage — I mean, c’mon, man. You want people to hire folks back, you don’t say you’re going to raise the minimum wage.”

House Republicans also railed against the package Friday morning as the Rules Committee met to tee up the bill, leading to a heated exchange between Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), the top Republican on the Budget Committee.

McGovern accused Smith, who slammed the overall cost of the bill among other issues, of taking his “diatribe” from “a QAnon webpage,” referring to the conspiracy theory the FBI has flagged as a potential domestic terrorism threat.

“I’ve never been on a QAnon webpage,” Smith responded.

To facilitate Senate passage, Democrats will need to ditch the minimum wage language and endure another amendment spree like the nearly 15-hour “vote-a-rama” that kept senators on the floor until after 5 a.m. earlier this month as they set up the speedier process of advancing the stimulus under special budget rules.

The Congressional Budget Office also said Thursday that Biden’s package would later trigger a $36 billion cut to Medicare as a result of pay-as-you-go rules, which require Congress to offset the cost of each piece of legislation.

Democrats have so far shrugged off that threat, and both parties have repeatedly voted to waive the rule and avoid the cuts with other major reconciliation packages.

But any effort to avoid the slicing will require support from at least 10 Senate Republicans, who could decide to use the cuts for leverage in order to exact policy wins.

Jennifer Scholtes and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.