Biden Urges Democrats to Unite Behind $1.9 Trillion Bill

President Joe Biden urged Democrats Tuesday to quickly resolve lingering disputes over his $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, with moderates including Senator Joe Manchin pushing to lower unemployment benefits and progressives already upset by the jettisoning of a $15 minimum wage.

Biden joined a virtual lunchtime meeting with Senate Democrats hosted by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and emphasized the need to put aside differences and pass the bill quickly -- with recognition that the special budget process they are using can’t accomplish every goal, according to lawmakers on the call.

“He wants us to stay focused on getting it done, and that we all have to understand that reconciliation has its limits,” said Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin.

Schumer is hoping to bring the mammoth spending package to the floor of his chamber for debate as soon as Wednesday, and pass it this week. A failure would be a huge blow for Democrats and the Biden administration.

“We’ll have the votes we need to pass this bill,” Schumer confidently predicted after the Biden call.

Benefit Amounts

The discussion itself didn’t resolve any substantive issues, however, and less than 24 hours before Democrats want to put the stimulus bill to the Senate floor, the party was still wrestling with demands for changes by senators from less liberal states.

Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said they want to pare down some of the bill’s provisions, including the weekly pandemic unemployment benefit set to expire March 14 and the income cap for stimulus checks.

Manchin and Shaheen told reporters they want to keep the current, $300-a-week, supplemental unemployment benefit, rather than boosting it to $400 as backed by Biden and passed by the House. Other senators have also discussed redirecting some of the $350 billion to state and local governments to other priorities like broadband internet.

“It doesn’t incentivize people,” Manchin said of the higher jobless benefit. “We want people to get back to work. We’re going to have a hard time getting people ready to go back in and keep the economy going. It would be awful if we open the doors and we have no one working.”

Employer Needs

Shaheen made a similar point.

“We also in New Hampshire have a lot of businesses who can’t find employees, who are concerned that people can make more money now on unemployment,” she said.

Shaheen also told reporters she also wants to cap the income level for families getting stimulus checks at less than $200,000 a year, the level in the House-passed bill.. She said she wants to plow some of those savings into spending on broadband and other programs. After the Biden call, New Hampshire’s other Democratic senator, Maggie Hassan, wouldn’t say if she wants changes to the bill. Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent, said he wasn’t prepared to comment.

Manchin, who stopped short of calling the issue a deal-breaker, said he hopes to reach an agreement Tuesday or Wednesday morning at the latest.

Biden has been stepping up his outreach this week. On Monday, he met at the White House with nine senators in the Democratic caucus, including Manchin, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Warner of Virginia and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

Further Talks

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders is resisting the push to slim down the benefits, and hopes the party can unite.

“The president believes and I believe that the supplement should be $400,” he said. “We think it’s coming to the floor on Wednesday. So who can predict what happens in the Senate but we hope to get it done. People are hurting.”

Sanders said he expects late-night work via telephone to resolve the remaining differences.

Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said Democrats will get to the finish line soon.

“I think we all feel a confidence, we’re going to get it done and we’re going to get it done, you know, this week or this weekend,” he said.

He said Democrats are prepared to heed Biden’s message during the call which was “it is real important that Democrats stick together, and let’s get this done for the American public.”

One solution to the argument over unemployment benefits could be to extend the length of time for benefits using money saved by reducing the weekly benefit supplement.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said talks continue over whether to keep the unemployment enhancement at $300, but there is a growing consensus that whatever is allowed be extended into September rather than August as in the House bill.

“It makes no sense to have another unemployment cliff in August, because senators are going to be gone. I think we’ve made a lot of headway with senators that that just defies common sense. That’s a prescription for trouble and I see growing support for going into September.”

That would leave remaining issues about the attempt to raise the minimum wage via the relief bill.

A long-shot bid by Sanders and House progressives seeking to overrule the Senate parliamentarian’s finding against including the $15 minimum wage in the package appears doomed, without support from the Biden administration or a Senate majority. Sanders instead will offer a floor amendment to force Democrats and Republicans to go on record on the minimum wage to build political pressure. Kaine said Democrats will bring a standalone bill later in the year to keep the battle going.

Even without a minimum-wage hike, the underlying bill spans many Democratic priorities, including large-scale aid to state and local governments, $1,400 stimulus checks for most Americans, unemployment benefits, health-care subsidies and rental assistance.

While some progressives are still pushing for a restoration of the minimum-wage increase, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer predicted the House would pass the bill that makes it through the Senate.

“This bill helps so many people in such a direct way at a critical time,” he said. “I cannot believe that the people who voted to send it to the Senate will not also vote to pass it and send it to the president for his signature.”

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