House passes $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package

Early Saturday morning vote sends package to the Senate, and likely changes next week

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called it "inevitable" that lawmakers would eventually raise the minimum wage, though that provision is expected to be stripped out of the pandemic aid bill in the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called it "inevitable" that lawmakers would eventually raise the minimum wage, though that provision is expected to be stripped out of the pandemic aid bill in the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 26, 2021 at 9:32pm, Updated February 27, 2021 at 2:05am

House Democrats passed a massive pandemic aid bill early Saturday morning over solid Republican opposition, a key step toward giving President Joe Biden his first major legislative victory.

The 219-212 vote sends the $1.9 trillion package to the Senate, where it is certain to undergo changes next week. 

A provision that would more than double the federal minimum wage must be stripped from the package, based on guidance from the Senate parliamentarian. Senate Democrats were prepping an alternative to try to get around budget rules by taxing employers that don't pay higher wages, but it wasn't clear if that effort would pass muster under the "Byrd rule" either.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it "inevitable" that lawmakers would somehow raise the minimum wage. She argued it amounted to "corporate welfare" to let companies pay lower wages and have the federal government pick up the tab with Medicaid, food stamp and other safety-net benefits.

Other potential Senate changes could redirect some of the $350 billion for states and localities to other purposes like broadband infrastructure; extend the expiration date on extended unemployment benefits by a month; and provide additional funds for restaurants, entertainment venues, hotels and more.

While speaking in support of the measure on the House floor, Scott Peters, D-Calif., said he favored "common sense" improvements to the bill before it goes to Biden's desk, such as adjusting funding for states based on "real revenue shortfalls" related to the pandemic.

Democrats were mostly unified on final passage, however, losing just two members on their side.

"This is not about dollars and cents; this is about lives that are at stake … this package will help families avoid impossible choices," said Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., citing some 500,000 U.S. deaths from the disease and 10 million jobs lost.

The two Democratic defectors were Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Jared Golden of Maine.

A 195-page manager's amendment incorporating myriad changes sought by Democrats was incorporated when the rule for floor debate was adopted on a 219-210 vote.

Republicans criticized the process and the early-morning hour of the vote, and items tucked into the larger bill as well as the manager's package that came as a surprise and had little to do with the pandemic.

Adrian Smith, R-Neb., pointed to a provision added by the Rules Committee, which hadn't been debated in Ways and Means, that would "drastically" lower the federal income tax reporting threshold for gig workers from $20,000 to $600. The Joint Committee on Taxation said the provision would raise $7.3 billion over a decade,

Democrats "want to reward their political allies at the expense of America's working class," said the Budget Committee's top Republican, Jason Smith of Missouri. "Simply put, this is the wrong plan, at the wrong time, for all the wrong reasons."

Republicans trained fire on a provision they said could direct up to $140 million to a rail and subway system connecting San Jose and Santa Clara, in the San Francisco Bay Area near Pelosi's district.

Calling it the "Pelosi payoff," Republicans offered a motion to recommit the bill back to the Budget Committee to consider an amendment from freshman Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa. The amendment would shift the $140 million for the San Francisco transit project to mental health services for children who can't attend in-person school.

Hinson's amendment "puts children first, not the swamp," Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said during debate. 

John Yarmuth, D-Ky., the Budget panel's chairman, hit back at McCarthy by saying, "I think he's been swimming in the swamp the last four years" under the Trump administration.

The GOP motion to recommit was rejected, 205-218. But an aide said Senate Republicans may try to raise a Byrd rule challenge to the transit project, giving them one more shot to knock it out of the final bill that goes to Biden's desk.

Most of the money in the package would be used to deliver tax rebate checks of up to $1,400, expanded unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments, and assistance to help public schools reopen after months of online learning. Funds are also included to help restaurants, airlines, faltering union pension plans and more, as well as for vaccine distribution, virus testing and expanding health insurance coverage.

Bipartisanship frays

Although Congress passed aid measures last year with bipartisan support, Democrats opted to use the budget reconciliation process this time to avoid the risk of a Republican Senate filibuster. That decision, which allows the package to pass on a simple majority vote, angered Republicans who noted last year Congress passed nearly $4 trillion worth of bipartisan pandemic aid laws.

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, the ranking Republican on the Rules panel, blasted the process as “deeply partisan.” He said of 245 amendments that Republicans offered during nine committee markups, only two were accepted by Democrats. And one of those was removed from the bill in the manager’s amendment. “And the majority wonders why Republicans oppose this package,” he said.

The GOP amendment that survived in the package was offered by Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., during the Financial Services markup. Democrats supported the measure meant to target support toward the smallest businesses including independent contractors, sole proprietors and gig workers.

An amendment from Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, which was adopted in the Agriculture Committee markup, was removed in the manager’s amendment. Feenstra’s measure was aimed at providing relief for producers who were affected by natural disasters, including high-velocity wind storms that tore through Iowa last year, causing billions of dollars in damage.

Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., defended the process and scope of the bill. “It is a lifesaving bill to get more vaccines into more communities, safely reopen schools, put direct assistance in people’s pockets, and help state and local governments on the front lines,” he said.

The Rules Committee spent most of Friday, from morning until evening, hearing testimony on various pieces of the aid package and plowing through more than 200 amendments submitted mostly by Republicans. The lengthy Rules session delayed the start of floor debate well into the evening.

One change appeared to allow the government to claw back money from tax rebate checks if recipients owe any outstanding debts. A second change strikes a requirement that the IRS send out notices advising people that they would receive a rebate check and in what amount.

Minimum wage effort

The Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, told senators Thursday that the provision as currently drafted would violate the Senate’s so-called Byrd rule, which prohibits measures from being included in a reconciliation bill if their budgetary impact is “merely incidental” to their policy objective.

Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Friday he was drafting a “Plan B” that would boost the minimum wage through the tax code. He said his plan would impose a penalty on corporations that didn’t boost wages and offer tax credits to small businesses to offset the cost of a wage boost.

The final price tag of the package can’t exceed a cost cap of $1.89 trillion, as imposed under the fiscal 2021 budget resolution that provides reconciliation instructions. Yarmuth said his estimate is that the current package, including a manager’s amendment, could exceed the cost cap by about $20 billion.

But that problem may be solved in the Senate if it strips out the minimum wage provision, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would cost about $67 billion over a decade.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.