'People are hurting;' House Democrats ready to push through Biden's $1.9T COVID-19 plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on Friday was poised to push through President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package, although it looked unlikely to be able to use the bill to raise the minimum wage nationwide.

A contentious and potentially long debate was expected, as most Republicans oppose the cost of the measure to pay for vaccines and other medical supplies to battle a COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work.

The package would also send a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments.

A group of Senate Republicans had offered Biden a slimmed-down alternative, but the White House and some economists insist a big package is needed.

Representative Jim McGovern, chairman of the House Rules Committee, said polls have shown that most Americans support the stimulus bill.

"The only place this is a partisan issue is here in Washington," McGovern said as the panel considered what to include in a full House debate expected later on Friday. "This is more than just numbers on a page. We are here because people are hurting and communities are struggling."

Republican Representative Tom Cole said about $1 trillion of the $4 trillion passed in aid last year remains unspent, and the bill was "bloated" with Democratic pet projects unrelated to the coronavirus.

"Shouldn’t we at least spend down the funds already allocated, and see if new money is actually required?" Cole said.

Biden has focused his first weeks in office on tackling the greatest public health crisis in a century, which has upended most aspects of American life.

Democrats control the House by a 221-211 margin, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is counting on nearly all of her rank and file to get the bill passed before sending it to a 50-50 Senate where Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote.

Embedded in the House bill is a federal minimum wage increase, which would be the first since 2009 and would gradually bump it up to $15 an hour in 2025 from the current $7.25 rate.

FUTURE UNCERTAIN FOR WAGE HIKE

But the future of the wage hike was dealt a serious blow on Thursday, when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that it could not be allowed in the Senate version of the coronavirus bill under that chamber's "reconciliation" rules.

The special rules allow the legislation to advance in the Senate with a simple majority of the 100 senators, instead of the 60 needed for most legislation.

Biden has not given up on raising the minimum wage to $15, a top White House economic adviser said on Friday. A higher wage "is the right thing to do," White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said in an interview on MSNBC.

The $15 minimum wage figure had already faced opposition in the Senate from most Republicans and at least two Democrats, which would have been enough to sink the plan. An array of senators are talking about a smaller increase, in the range of $10 to $12 per hour.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is considering adding a provision to the Senate bill to penalize large corporations that do not pay their workers a $15 minimum wage, a Senate Democratic aide said, similar to a proposal made by Senator Bernie Sanders.

In arguing for passage of the relief bill, Pelosi also cited opinion polls indicating the support of a significant majority of Americans who have been battered by the yearlong pandemic.

"It's about putting vaccinations in the arm, money in the pocket, children in the schools, workers in their jobs," Pelosi told reporters on Thursday, adding: "It's what this country needs."

Among the big-ticket items in the bill are $1,400 direct payments to individuals, a $400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through Aug. 29 and help for those having difficulties paying their rent and home mortgages during the pandemic.

An array of business interests also have weighed in behind Biden's "America Rescue Plan" Act, as the bill is called.

Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy complained it was "too costly, too corrupt." While Republicans for months have blocked a new round of aid to state and local governments, McCarthy said he was open to his home state of California getting some of the bill's $350 billion in funding, despite a onetime $15 billion budget surplus.

Efforts to craft a bipartisan coronavirus aid bill fizzled early on, shortly after Biden was sworn in as president on Jan. 20, following a series of bipartisan bills enacted in 2020 that totaled around $4 trillion.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan, additional reporting by David Morgan and Eric Beech; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)

02/26/2021 18:40

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