Biden Relief Plan Faces Senate Hurdle With Debate Poised to Open

President Joe Biden’s imperative of swiftly passing his $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief program faces one of its final hurdles: settling disputes among Senate Democrats over how to ensure aid gets to those who truly need it.

With Republicans accusing Democrats of advancing a mammoth spending bill just as the economy is poised to accelerate, a handful of moderate senators is pushing for changes that reduce the risk of assistance flowing to households relatively unscathed by the crisis or to individuals who’d otherwise head back to work.

The Biden administration has consistently argued that the risk of going too small is greater than the danger of excess spending. The president has urged Democrats, above all, to get the bill passed quickly.

Biden Relief Plan Faces Senate Hurdle With Debate Poised to Open

The Senate is planning to formally open debate on the pandemic-relief bill as soon as Wednesday afternoon. Senior Democratic lawmakers gave every indication that their caucus will be able to sort through the debate over potential tweaks to the proposed $400-a-week supplemental unemployment benefit and $1,400 stimulus checks included in the House version of the aid bill.

“Bottom line is we have got to get this done because that cliff is coming,” said Senate Finance Committee chairman Ron Wyden, referring to the mid-March expiration of some previously enacted federal help. “I’m doing everything I can to keep the foot on the pedal.”

Democrats are aiming to resolve their outstanding differences before the amendment process, known as the vote-a-rama, begins as soon as Thursday. Once that begins, the danger is that Republicans could reshape some of the provisions by peeling off just one Democrat, given the chamber’s 50-50 partisan split.

Vote Count

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday, “We’ll have the votes we need to pass this bill.” He said the package is on track to get to Biden by March 14, when the current benefit of $300 a week in help to the jobless runs out.

The House version of the aid plan bumps that benefit up to $400 a week through August, and that’s been a point of contention. Joe Manchin of West Virgina and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire want to keep the level at $300. Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders is among those pushing for the higher total.

“The supplement should be $400,” Sanders said, noting that the figure was Biden’s original proposal. He anticipated talks into Tuesday night. “The point is it’s a very complicated bill and a whole lot of people are working on this with us.”

Shaheen warned against setting the figure too high. “In New Hampshire we have a lot of businesses who can’t find employees, who are concerned that people can make more money now on unemployment,” she said.

Biden Relief Plan Faces Senate Hurdle With Debate Poised to Open

Summer ‘Trouble’

Meantime, Wyden wants the benefits extended a further month, to September.

“It makes no sense to have another unemployment cliff in August,” when lawmakers head out for a recess, Wyden said. “That’s a prescription for trouble, and I see growing support for going into September.”

The debate on jobless benefits is an echo of arguments between lawmakers last year, after the March 2020 Cares Act provided $600 a week in help for those who lost their jobs. Republicans complained that the amount was so generous that it made people prefer to stay out of work.

Many households saved some of those benefits, and it helped the economy weather a resurgence in the virus in the second half of last year even as some flows of assistance expired. The GOP joined Democrats in reviving benefits in a $900 billion pandemic-relief bill in December, by when Covid-19 had become the No. 1 cause of death for Americans.

While the rescue plan has already tightened eligibility for direct payments compared with previous stimulus checks, Shaheen said she wants the $1,400 payments capped at something lower than the currently proposed $200,000 for joint taxpayers.

“I think we could drop it below the $200,000 and still provide help to households that still need it,” she said.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has highlighted the need for another dose of large-scale federal aid to help get to the “other side” of the health crisis, after vaccinations help enable a reopening of the economy.

Some House Democrats have continued to bristle at some of the changes being contemplated and, especially, the decision by the Senate parliamentarian that a boost in the minimum wage to $15 an hour couldn’t be considered under the chamber’s budget rules. It remains to be seen in these progressives will use their leverage to demand more changes If and when the bill is sent back to the House.

Vice President Kamala Harris Tuesday night gave a pep talk to House Democrats in a video message to their policy meeting.

“I know there are days when it feels like we have to do more, we could do more, we must do more,” Harris told the Democrats. “On the American Rescue Plan, we’ve been laser-focused and we need that same discipline and determination moving forward.”

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