Chicago Tribune (Sunday)

$1.9 trillion virus bill now heads to Senate

Dems have 2 weeks to pass aid as jobless benefits near lapse

- By Alan Fram

WASHINGTON — The House approved a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that was championed by President Joe Biden, the first step in providing another dose of aid to a weary nation as the measure now moves to a tense Senate.

“We have no time to waste,” Biden said at the White House after the House passage early Saturday. “We act now — decisively, quickly and boldly — we can finally get ahead of this virus. We can finally get our economy moving again. People in this country have suffered far too much for too long.”

The new president’s vision for infusing cash across a struggling economy to individual­s, businesses, schools, states and cities battered by COVID-19 passed on a near party-line 219-212 vote.

Democrats said mass unemployme­nt and the more than 510,000 American lives lost are causes to act despite nearly $4 trillion in aid already spent fighting the fallout from the disease. GOP lawmakers, they said, were

out of step with a public that polling finds largely views the bill favorably.

“I am a happy camper tonight,” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said Friday. “This is what America needs. Republican­s, you ought to be a part of this. But if you’re not, we’re going without you.”

With unemployme­nt benefits set to begin lapsing March 14 for the workers who have been thrown off the job longest in the crisis, Democrats have only two weeks to finish the package in the Senate and resend it to the House and Biden’s desk. Because party leaders decided to use a fast-track budget process known as reconcilia­tion to swiftly move the legislatio­n and circumvent Republican opposition in the Senate, the bill will need to comply with a series of strict budgetary rules along the way.

Republican­s said the bill was too expensive and said too few education dollars would be spent quickly to immediatel­y reopen schools. They said it was laden with gifts to Democratic constituen­cies like labor unions and funneled money to Democratic-run states they suggested didn’t need it because their budgets had bounced back.

“To my colleagues who say this bill is bold, I say it’s bloated,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “To those who say it’s urgent, I say it’s unfocused. To those who say it’s popular, I say it is entirely partisan.”

The overall relief bill would provide $1,400 payments to individual­s, extend emergency unemployme­nt benefits through August and increase tax credits for children and federal subsidies for health insurance.

It also provides billions for schools and colleges, state and local government­s, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, renters, food producers and struggling industries like airlines, restaurant­s, bars and concert venues.

The battle is also emerging as an early test of Biden’s ability to hold together his party’s fragile congressio­nal majorities — just 10 votes in the House and an evenly divided 50-50 Senate.

At the same time, Democrats were trying to figure out how to assuage liberals who lost their top priority in a jarring Senate setback Thursday.

That chamber’s nonpartisa­n parliament­arian, Elizabeth MacDonough, said Senate rules require that a federal minimum wage increase would have to be dropped from the COVID-19 bill, leaving the proposal on life support. The measure would gradually lift that minimum to $15 hourly by 2025, doubling the current $7.25 floor in effect since 2009.

Hoping to revive the effort, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., is considerin­g adding a provision to the Senate version of the COVID-19 relief bill that would penalize large companies that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour, said a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversati­ons.

That was in line with ideas floated Thursday night by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a chief sponsor of the $15 plan, and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to boost taxes on corporatio­ns that don’t hit certain minimum wage targets.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., offered encouragem­ent too, calling a minimum wage increase “a financial necessity for our families, a great stimulus for our economy and a moral imperative for our country.” She said the House would “absolutely” approve a final version of the relief bill because of its widespread benefits, even if it lacked progressiv­es’ treasured goal.

While Democratic leaders were eager to signal to rank-and-file progressiv­es and liberal voters that they would not yield on the minimum wage fight, their pathway was unclear because of GOP opposition and questions over whether they had enough Democratic support.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., sidesteppe­d a question on taxing companies that don’t boost pay, saying of Senate Democrats, “I hesitate to say anything until they decide on a strategy.”

 ?? PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP ?? “We have no time to waste,” President Joe Biden said after the House approved the $1.9 trillion coronaviru­s relief bill early Saturday. The legislatio­n passed on a 219-212 vote.
PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP “We have no time to waste,” President Joe Biden said after the House approved the $1.9 trillion coronaviru­s relief bill early Saturday. The legislatio­n passed on a 219-212 vote.

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