WASHINGTON D.C. — Over the weekend, the country moved a step closer to $1,400 stimulus checks hitting bank accounts as the House approved a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that was championed by President Joe Biden.
The big question now: How quickly will the measure move through the Senate and could we see those direct payments this month?
“We have no time to waste,” Biden said on Saturday. “We act now — decisively, quickly and boldly — we can finally get ahead of this virus.”
Democratic leaders hope to spend two weeks debating the relief package and get it to Biden’s desk before the most recent emergency jobless benefits end on March 14. If that happens, it’s possible the U.S. Treasury Department could get direct payments processed in a matter of days — meaning you could see money this month.
However, quite a bit has to happen before then. Senate Democrats seem bent on resuscitating a $15 per hour minimum wage push and fights could erupt over state aid and other issues.
While the Senate is expected to try and make changes to the bill, the House proposal calls for $1,400 stimulus checks to go to the same Americans who received direct payments in round two of coronavirus relief.
If you need a refresher, anyone who made $75,000 or less will get the full amount — and couples earning $150,000 or less will get $2,800 in relief payments. As your income level increases above those thresholds, the amount you will receive decreases. The current plan calls for a phase out of direct payments for single people earning $100,000 and couples earning $200,000.
Republican leaders and even some Democratic lawmakers have called for and proposed lower thresholds to ensure the direct payments are targeted to Americans who need them the most. However, Biden has pushed back at that.
In addition to the $1,400 payments, the bill would extend emergency unemployment benefits through August and increase tax credits for children and federal subsidies for health insurance.
It also provides billions for schools and colleges, state and local governments, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, renters, food producers and struggling industries like airlines, restaurants, bars and concert venues.
Moderate Democratic Reps. Jared Golden of Maine and Kurt Schrader of Oregon were the only two lawmakers to cross party lines. That sharp partisan divide is making the fight a showdown over whom voters will reward for heaping more federal spending to combat the coronavirus and revive the economy atop the $4 trillion approved last year.
The battle is also emerging as an early test of Biden’s ability to hold together his party’s fragile congressional majorities — just 10 votes in the House and an evenly divided 50-50 Senate.
At the same time, Democrats were trying to figure out how to assuage liberals who lost their top priority in a jarring Senate setback Thursday.
That chamber’s nonpartisan parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, said Senate rules require that a federal minimum wage increase would have to be dropped from the COVID-19 bill, leaving the proposal on life support. The measure would gradually lift that minimum to $15 hourly by 2025, doubling the current $7.25 floor in effect since 2009.
Hoping to revive the effort in some form, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is considering adding a provision to the Senate version of the COVID-19 relief bill that would penalize large companies that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour, said a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
That was in line with ideas floated Thursday night by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a chief sponsor of the $15 plan, and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to boost taxes on corporations that don’t hit certain minimum wage targets.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., offered encouragement, too, calling a minimum wage increase “a financial necessity for our families, a great stimulus for our economy and a moral imperative for our country.” She said the House would “absolutely” approve a final version of the relief bill because of its widespread benefits, even if it lacked progressives’ treasured goal.
While Democratic leaders were eager to signal to rank-and-file progressives and liberal voters that they would not yield on the minimum wage fight, their pathway was unclear because of GOP opposition and questions over whether they had enough Democratic support.
House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., sidestepped a question on taxing companies that don’t boost pay, saying of Senate Democrats, “I hesitate to say anything until they decide on a strategy.”
Progressives were demanding that the Senate press ahead anyway on the minimum wage increase, even if it meant changing that chamber’s rules and eliminating the filibuster, a tactic that requires 60 votes for a bill to move forward.
“We’re going to have to reform the filibuster because we have to be able to deliver,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., another high-profile progressive, also said Senate rules must be changed, telling reporters that when Democrats meet with their constituents, “We can’t tell them that this didn’t get done because of an unelected parliamentarian.”
Traditionalists of both parties — including Biden, who served as a senator for 36 years — have opposed eliminating filibusters because they protect parties’ interests when they are in the Senate minority. Biden said weeks ago that he didn’t expect the minimum wage increase to survive the Senate’s rules. Democrats narrowly hold Senate control.
Pelosi, too, seemed to shy away from dismantling Senate procedures, saying, “We will seek a solution consistent with Senate rules, and we will do so soon.”
The House COVID-19 bill includes the minimum wage increase, so the real battle over its fate will occur when the Senate debates its version over the next two weeks.
Democrats are pushing the relief measure through Congress under special rules that will let them avoid a Senate GOP filibuster, meaning that if they are united they won’t need any Republican votes.
It also lets the bill move faster, a top priority for Democrats who want the bill on Biden’s desk before the most recent emergency jobless benefits end on March 14.
But those same Senate rules prohibit provisions with only an “incidental” impact on the federal budget because they are chiefly driven by other policy purposes. MacDonough decided that the minimum wage provision failed that test.
Republicans oppose the $15 minimum wage target as an expense that would hurt businesses and cost jobs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.