Stimulus checks debate now focuses on size, eligibility

Republicans and Democrats negotiating the next coronavirus relief package are voicing support for including another round of stimulus checks, but their competing proposals for direct payments have some differences that need to be hammered out.

The two key issues that need resolving: payment amounts for dependents and eligibility requirements.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have put forth direct payment proposals largely similar to the stimulus checks included in the CARES Act from late March that provided checks for most Americans — up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child under 17.

The differences between Democrats and Republicans on direct payments are narrower than they are on other potential elements of a COVID-19 relief package such as aid to state and local governments and liability protections for businesses.

“This is one of the places where they’re pretty close,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

But as negotiations spill over into the weekend, Democratic leaders and Trump administration officials will have to iron out the details on checks that will give households an infusion of cash to spend on key expenses amid the coronavirus recession.

House Democrats passed a $3 trillion package in May, known as the HEROES Act, that would provide for a second round of payments of $1,200 per adult and $1,200 per dependent for up to three dependents. Adult dependents, such as college students and elderly relatives, would qualify for payments in addition to children.

The measure would allow people with Social Security numbers and those with individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITINs) to receive payments. A number of foreign nationals, including many undocumented immigrants, use ITINs to pay U.S. taxes.

Senate Republicans and the White House on Monday released their coronavirus relief package — the $1 trillion HEALS Act — that would also provide for a second round of payments but at $1,200 per adult and $500 per dependent regardless of age. The proposal mirrors the identification number requirement of the CARES Act, under which work-eligible Social Security numbers are required and a U.S. citizen who is married to an ITIN filer would generally not receive a payment if the couple filed a joint tax return.

On Thursday, a group of GOP senators introduced their own bill with parameters that fall in between the HEROES Act and the HEALS Act. Under the new measure, backed by GOP Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.), Steve Daines (Mont.), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), both adults and dependents would receive payments of $1,000. Under their proposal, people would need to have Social Security numbers to receive payments, but U.S. citizens in households with foreign nationals would be able to get payments.

Democrats are making the case that the next round of stimulus payments needs to look like the payments in the HEROES Act.

“Democrats were intentional when we added a full $1,200 payment for dependents in the HEROES Act. That’s what the American people need right now,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said in a statement to The Hill on Tuesday. “Parents are facing so much uncertainty as we look to the start of the next school year and $500 per dependent simply isn’t enough.”

Neal and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday that it is “unfair” that the first round of payments excludes taxpayers who use ITINs.

GOP lawmakers, however, are raising concerns about the parameters laid out by Democrats.

The top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas), said on a call with reporters Wednesday that he didn’t know if Republicans would be willing to raise the amount for dependents.

He said that the HEALS Act proposal “is a sound one” and that “making sure these go to people with a valid Social Security number is very important as well.”

Cassidy, Daines, Romney and Rubio weighed in with their own proposal in an effort to try to target the direct payments more toward families.

“As Congress continues to negotiate another economic response to the pandemic, we should prioritize direct assistance to those who need it most,” Rubio said in a statement Thursday. “American families are among the hardest hit, facing unexpected challenges like homeschooling, child care shortages, and unemployment.”

The following day, at a virtual event hosted by the American Business Immigration Coalition and the Immigration Partnership and Coalition Fund, Rubio said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that a final agreement negotiated by Republicans and Democrats will allow U.S. citizens married to noncitizens to get direct payments. He noted that people will spend the payment money, benefiting the economy and small businesses.

The direct payments in the Democratic proposal are estimated to be the most expensive, but economic policy analysts said the cost differences are not large in the context of an overall coronavirus relief package.

Congress’s tax scorekeeper, the Joint Committee on Taxation, estimated that the second round of checks in the HEROES Act would cost about $413 billion, which is more than its estimate of $292 billion for the first round of direct payments.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal watchdog group, estimated that the direct payments in the HEALS Act would cost about $300 billion. The right-leaning Tax Foundation estimated that the separate proposal from Cassidy, Daines, Romney and Rubio would cost about $311 billion.

“There are cost differences here, but they aren’t massive,” said Garrett Watson, a senior policy analyst at the Tax Foundation.

An analysis from the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) found that the HEROES Act would provide more assistance to low- and moderate-income families than the HEALS Act and would do more to address racial and ethnic wealth and income gaps.

Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy at ITEP, said single parents would get a “better deal under the HEROES Act” than under the HEALS Act. Under the HEALS Act, a married couple with one child would get more money than a single parent with two children, while under the HEROES Act, those families would get the same amount.

While there are some notable differences among the proposals for a second round of direct payments, there are also areas where lawmakers are in agreement.

Democrats and Republicans are both proposing to keep the income thresholds from the CARES Act. Proposals from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would allow individuals making up to $75,000 and married couples making up to $150,000 to be eligible for the full amount of a second payment, with the amounts phasing out above those levels.

Additionally, both Democrats and Republicans have indicated they want to prevent payments from being garnished by banks and private debt collectors.

“The structure of the checks is almost identical,” said Rohit Kumar, co-leader of the PricewaterhouseCoopers Washington national tax office and a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Tags Ayanna Pressley Bill Cassidy CARES Act Coronavirus COVID-19 direct payments HEALS Act Heroes Act Kevin Brady Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Pandemic Richard Neal Steve Daines Steven Mnuchin stimulus checks

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