Democrats face unity test on Biden’s $1.9T bill
House Democrats will face their biggest test of unity yet this week as they prepare to get President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package closer to the finish line.
With no Republicans expected to cross party lines to support the package, Democrats have little room for error to ensure it satisfies the centrist and progressive wings of the caucus that make up their razor-thin majorities while delivering on Biden’s top legislative priority.
The House Budget Committee is meeting on Monday to formally consolidate the entire wide-ranging package that includes a third round of stimulus checks of up to $1,400 for individuals, a minimum wage increase, $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen for in-person learning and renewed unemployment insurance benefits before they expire in mid-March.
From there, Democrats are hoping to move quickly to get the package to Biden’s desk before the unemployment insurance benefits lapse. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team are aiming for a floor vote by Friday so that the Senate can take it up the following week.
If the bill is amended by the Senate, then the House would likely take up the package again during the week of March 8.
“We are in a race against time, and aggressive, bold action is needed before our nation is permanently scarred by the human and economic costs of inaction,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said ahead of Monday’s markup of the legislation.
While House progressives are touting victories in the package like the inclusion of increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour by 2025, it’s unclear whether those provisions can survive in the narrowly divided Senate where even just one or two centrist Democrats can make or break a coalition.
It’s possible that the minimum wage provision will be disqualified by the Senate parliamentarian from the budget reconciliation process anyway if it doesn’t meet requirements that the change has an effect on the federal budget and that it is not “merely incidental” to that effect.
In that case, Democratic senators like Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) wouldn’t be to blame if the minimum wage increase ends up on the cutting room floor.
Yet progressives are keeping up the pressure to get all Democrats on board with one of their top priorities.
“We can’t let one or two Democrats prevent the $15 minimum wage from being in the relief bill. It’s bad politics and bad policy,” tweeted Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “The American people need a raise and we need to deliver one.”
The minimum wage hike is broadly popular among Democrats; only six voted against the bill that the House passed in 2019 to raise the wage to $15 per hour. And of the six, all but one — Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.) — lost reelection.
But defections in the current Congress, where Democrats have a slim majority in the House and each party has 50 seats in the Senate, could be more calamitous.
Manchin remains opposed to a $15 minimum wage, arguing it should be raised to $11 per hour. Without his vote or Sinema’s, Democrats would lack the votes to pass the COVID-19 relief package under the reconciliation process that allows them to bypass a GOP filibuster.
Whether or not the minimum wage makes it past the Senate parliamentarian, House Democratic leaders are determined to include it in their proposal.
“We’re not talking about doing the whole $15 by tomorrow morning. We’re talking about gradually getting there but show some movement. So, I want it to happen. But we’re going to go forward with the bill, even if the parliamentarian does not give us some favorable ruling,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said on CNN.
Progressives secured another victory in the legislation by maintaining the same income threshold requirements for the stimulus checks as the two previous rounds under the Trump administration, which would be provided at the full amount for individuals making $75,000 or less. Some Democrats had floated lowering the maximum eligibility to $50,000 to ensure the aid went to Americans most in need, but that proposal was ultimately discarded in favor of largely adhering to the same parameters as before.
House GOP leaders, meanwhile, are actively whipping against the bill, calling it “Pelosi’s Payoff to Progressives Act” in a notice to their members.
“It’s clear Democrats have no interest in approaching COVID relief in a timely and targeted fashion and are instead using the reconciliation process to jam through their liberal wish list agenda,” the notice from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s (R-La.) office states.
While raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour has long been a progressive priority, they argue it’s relevant to addressing the COVID-19 crisis by giving a boost to low-wage workers who’ve had to risk exposure to the virus on the job.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated this month that the minimum wage increase would lift about 900,000 people out of poverty but risk 1.4 million job losses.
“Millions of people are working on the front lines on this pandemic for starvation wages. And it’s time that we corrected this injustice and that we restore dignity to work by paying all workers a decent wage,” Jayapal told reporters.
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