House Expected To Pass $1.9 Trillion Covid-19 Relief Bill As Dems Try To Save Minimum Wage Hike

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill Friday evening, advancing President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s showcase policy, but setting up a fight in the Senate over increasing the minimum wage.

Congress is set to act 37 days after Biden became the 46th president and one day after he highlighted that the nation had issued 50 million vaccine injections for the Covid-19 outbreak. Biden has promised 100 million injections in 100 days.

Last week, Biden marked the deaths of half a million Americans in the pandemic with a moment of silence and a candlelight ceremony at the South Portico of the White House. The U.S. death toll has since risen to about 508,000, while more than 28 million positive cases have been confirmed, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

In addition to its impact on Americans’ health, Covid-19 has affected the nation’s jobless rate. Early this month, 10 million American workers were unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

(L-R) U.S. President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff participate in a moment of silence at sundown in the South Portico of the White House Feb. 22, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The four held a candlelight ceremony to mark the more than 500,000 lives lost in the U.S. to Covid-19 since the pandemic hit. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

House lawmakers are expected to approve, along a party-line vote, most of the priorities Biden laid out in his pandemic response strategy and his speech to the nation explaining it.

Among them, the American Rescue Act includes $1,400 stimulus checks to most Americans and a provision increasing and extending the federal boost to unemployment benefits. The new measure would supplement state unemployment checks by $400, rather than $300, and would extend coverage through August.

The bill directs $350 billion to state, local and tribal governments to help offset their pandemic budget woes and $170 billion to help get students of all ages back into classrooms.

The aid package directs $60 billion to speed up vaccinations, improve testing and tracing, and bolster research, as well as $19 billion for states to provide renter assistance and to combat homelessness.

The bill would also extend the Paycheck Protection Program, offering $15 billion in low-rate loans and providing $25 billion in grants to struggling bars and restaurants.

The most debated provision, and least likely to be enacted, remains a hike in the federal minimum wage.

House lawmakers are considering a version of the bill that includes a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15.

The Senate parliamentarian ruled Thursday that a provision to raise the minimum wage to $15 could not be part of a budget reconciliation process. Senate Democrats hope to use the maneuver to circumvent any GOP filibuster to ensure the relief bill makes it to Biden’s desk.

It means that, unlike the overall American Rescue Act, the minimum-wage provision cannot pass with a majority vote. The chamber is currently split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris the potential tiebreaker.

If the minimum wage hike does get shot down, Democrats say they will seek other solutions.

“We will continue to explore all legislative options — including a tax penalty for mega-corporations that refuse to pay a living wage — for raising workers’ wages as we push forward on the relief package, which must be signed into law ahead of the March 14th cliff for jobless benefits,” said Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in a statement.

But for now, House Democrats vow to push on seeking a minimum-wage hike.

“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. This policy will remain in H.R. 1319 and pass tomorrow,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted afterward.

Republican lawmakers have said the relief bill is too expensive and too sweeping. They have particularly objected to the minimum wage provision, saying it has nothing to do with the pandemic.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill on Feb. 26, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The House is set to vote Friday evening on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“Just 9 percent of the Democrats’ nearly $2 trillion bill focuses on defeating COVID-19. Simply put, this legislation is NOT about COVID relief,” the House GOP tweeted.

“Democrats are not addressing the urgent needs of a re-opening America. They started with a preconceived liberal wish-list and worked backwards,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted.

Congress last raised the minimum wage, to $7.25, in 2009, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Republican lawmakers, plus moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have signaled they won’t vote for an increase. No GOP lawmakers are expected to vote for it, or the overall bill.

But progressives, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), say a minimum wage boost is vital to the economic recovery and have made it a cornerstone of their agenda.

“People are demanding an end to starvation wages in America. We will not give up. We must get this done,” Sanders tweeted, saying he disagreed with the parliamentarian. “The relief bill is life and death for millions of working families.”

Most observers believe senators will ax the minimum wage proposal to vote on the rest of the relief package.

The White House joined Democratic lawmakers in expressing regret at the interpretation of Senate procedure.

“President Biden is disappointed in this outcome, as he proposed having the $15 minimum wage as part of the American Rescue Plan,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “He will work with leaders in Congress to determine the best path forward because no one in this country should work full time and live in poverty,” she added, noting that Biden urged lawmakers to pass the rest of the plan.

The rule marks a mixed blessing for the Biden camp. The $15 minimum wage may be sacrificed to get the bulk of his pandemic agenda approved. Its removal clears the way for Sen. Sinema and Sen. Manchin to support the relief package.

Ultimately, it will be in the Senate that the Biden Administration learns how much of its pandemic relief agenda remains intact.

(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Kristen Butler)

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