Biden’s Relief Bill Poses First Major Test for Schumer as Senate Leader
(Bloomberg) -- New York’s Chuck Schumer confronts his first major test as Senate majority leader with the chamber set to take up President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief package this week despite simmering tension between the Democratic Party’s moderate and progressive factions.
Schumer said he wants to bring the legislation to the Senate floor by mid-week, but Democrats were still wrangling over some details of the bill, a version of which passed the House early Saturday on a narrow party-line vote.
“The economy is not strong enough to sustain things on its own,” Schumer said Tuesday, despite improving numbers he attributed to the $900 billion December relief bill. “We need strong relief to get the economy going, so it can continue on an upward path.”
The package includes $1,400 payments to millions of Americans along with extended supplemental unemployment benefits and aid to small businesses, though who gets the payments and how big the jobless benefits will be in the final Senate bill is the subject of negotiations among Democrats.
“We’re looking for a targeted bill,” said Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virgina, a pivotal vote needed for passage in the 50-50 Senate. “We want it to be very targeted, helping the people that need help the most.”
Manchin told reporters Tuesday he’s still pushing to shrink the unemployment bonus benefit in the package from $400 a week and keep it at the current $300 a week to encourage workers to seek jobs.
“It would be awful if we open the doors and we have no one working,” he said. He said he hopes to work something out “today or tomorrow morning at the latest.”
Once the Senate passes the legislation it will return to the House, where Republicans are united in opposition and progressive Democrats are protesting the exclusion of a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Navigating the differences among Democrats and notching an early win on the stimulus could help Schumer when he turns to Biden’s other priorities, including a major infrastructure program, climate change and taxes that are likely to split the progressive and more moderate wings of the party.
Democrats have set a deadline of getting the legislation to Biden’s desk before the expanded unemployment benefits that were in the last pandemic relief bill begin running out on March 14.
The measure is more than double the size of the $831 billion economic stimulus package enacted 12 years ago under President Barack Obama, and Schumer has far more challenging math. Democrats held 58 Senate seats when that earlier legislation was signed into law, but Schumer leads a Senate split 50-50 between the two parties.
There also is the divide among Democrats. Passage in the Senate may have been made easier by the decision last week of the Senate parliamentarian that a provision raising the nation’s minimum wage to $15 an hour doesn’t qualify for the fast-track budget procedure Democrats are using to pass the stimulus with just 50 votes in the Senate.
Including the minimum wage increase risked losing the support of Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two Democrats from Republican-leaning states.
Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders and Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden proposed penalizing big companies that don’t pay their workers $15 an hour through the tax code. But that was shelved over the weekend after it became clear that getting all 50 Senate Democrats to agree on specific language would risk missing the March 14 deadline.
Sanders said Monday he’d introduce an amendment to include a $15 minimum wage in the legislation, which is likely to be defeated.
“My own personal view is that the Senate should ignore the parliamentarian’s advice, which is wrong in a number of respects,” he said in a statement. “I am not sure, however, that my view at this point is the majority view in the Democratic Caucus.”
Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have to deal with demands from progressives in the House to bypass Senate rules to get the minimum wage hike through.
On Monday, 22 House Democrats called on Vice President Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, to overrule the parliamentarian -- which the White House has said she won’t do. That’s enough Democrats to potentially defeat the massive relief package when it returns to the House, though some members of the group indicated they won’t withhold their votes.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration remains committed to increasing the minimum wage and will work with “members of Congress, with their staffs, about the best vehicle moving forward. But we don’t have a clear answer on what that looks like at this point.”
Progressives also may bristle at tightening eligibility for the $1,400 stimulus payments to individuals and trimming the expansion of extra unemployment benefits.
‘One Senator Can Stop Things’
Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said he’d “continue to do everything I can,” to keep the jobless benefits at $400 a week and is attempting to include an extra month of benefits beyond the five provided in the House bill. He also said there might be an effort to better target the direct payments, although he’ll continuing to push for the phase-out to start at $75,000 in adjusted gross income for individuals.
The final bill is “probably going to change, but pretty modestly, that would be my guess,” Montana Senator Jon Tester, another moderate whose vote will be critical, said.
Biden is stepping up efforts to keep Democrats united in favor. On Monday, he met at the White House with nearly a dozen Democratic senators, including Manchin, Tester, Mark Warner of Virginia and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. On Tuesday, he’ll attend a virtual meeting of all Senate Democrats.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, acknowledged to reporters that the leadership team is starting to feel the challenges of a 50-50 Senate.
“One senator can stop things,” Durbin said. “It’s more dramatic now because we have the Democratic majority and need to do things.”
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