Senate aid package would lower income limit for direct payments

Deal with moderates would keep existing income cutoff for full $1,400 checks, but phaseout ends quickly

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., says she'd be OK with lower unemployment benefit amounts, more money for broadband, health care providers.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., says she'd be OK with lower unemployment benefit amounts, more money for broadband, health care providers. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 3, 2021 at 11:24am, Updated at 3:18pm

Senate Democrats and the Biden administration have agreed to reduce the income limits for receiving direct payments in their emerging coronavirus relief plan, cutting off checks to individuals earning more than $80,000 and joint tax filers making above $160,000.

That's down from respective limits of $100,000 and $200,000 in the House-passed bill, though individuals earning up to $75,000 and married couples filing jointly making up to $150,000 would still get the maximum $1,400 check.

The lower thresholds are a nod to concerns from moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., who wanted to ensure that the direct payments were targeted mainly at lower-income earners. It was possible some of the savings could be diverted to other popular areas like broadband access and relief for hospitals and other health care providers.

But it appears Manchin and others won't succeed in capping the amount of enhanced weekly unemployment benefits at $300; those payments will grow to $400, in line with President Joe Biden's request and the House bill.

The higher unemployment benefits would end on Aug. 29 as in the House bill, despite a push by Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and others to extend that through September to avoid benefits potentially lapsing during the congressional summer recess.

Senate Democrats and their House counterparts, who would need to pass the amended bill, seemed generally on board with the decision to lower the income thresholds for direct payments.

"We're interested in seeing the total package when it comes out, but so far, so good," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi. House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said he backed the more targeted income threshold, arguing that "going up to $200,000 was bad optics."

There was some grumbling from lawmakers who represent big metropolitan areas with a higher cost of living and more constituents earning up to that earlier $200,000 cap.

"I think the package as it was originally crafted is good to go," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told reporters. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who represents much of Seattle and surrounding areas, said "I don't like that this is being narrowed" but that she wanted to see how many people would be affected.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who represents his state's capital of Madison, called it a "silly and stupid" move by Senate Democrats, though he stopped short of saying he'd vote "no" on the bill.

"Let's hope they don't screw too many things up," said Pocan, a former Progressive Caucus co-chairman. "We need to get this done."

The Senate revisions to the House-passed coronavirus relief package are under review to ensure that the measure is in compliance with the fiscal 2021 budget resolution, a Senate Democratic aide said Wednesday morning.

Once an official cost estimate comes back from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, which the aide said could be as early as Wednesday, the Senate will move to proceed to the House's $1.9 trillion bill. The motion will require a simple majority to adopt, with Vice President Kamala Harris' vote potentially needed to break a tie given the 50-50 partisan split in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the chamber could take up the measure as early as Wednesday evening.

If the motion is adopted, it will begin the allotted 20-hour timeframe for debate under the 1974 budget law, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Once time for debate has elapsed, a "vote-a-rama" will ensue and will continue until all amendments or procedural motions senators want to offer are disposed of.

The previous vote-a-rama, on the budget blueprint, began the afternoon of Feb. 4 and lasted until 5:38 a.m. on Feb. 5. The 41 roll call votes cast during that session were the third-most since 1977, according to Senate records. 

"I think it's probably going to go longer than what you saw with the budget resolution," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Full bill reading?

The 20 hours for debate may not start right away. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., plans to force Democrats to read the entire substitute amendment before debate begins. Normally, the reading is waived by unanimous consent. That process could take about 10 hours before the debate even gets underway, which could potentially push final passage into early Saturday if senators use all available time.

Senate Democrats earlier this week were still tweaking their substitute amendment to the House bill, though it was expected to largely preserve the core of the package as proposed by Biden and House Democrats.

The measure would distribute $1,400 checks to most Americans, expand a federal unemployment benefit supplement and renew it through August, bolster child tax credits, provide as much as $350 billion for direct aid to states and localities,and deliver more money for schools and vaccine distribution. Hard-hit industry sectors such as restaurants and airlines would also get a boost, as would underfunded union pension plans at risk of insolvency.

Democrats who aren't sold on some of the provisions could try to amend it during the vote-a-rama.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., told reporters Tuesday that she thinks a $300 weekly unemployment add-on is more appropriate since in her state "we have a lot of businesses who can't find employees who are concerned that people can make their money now on unemployment." Shaheen said she wanted to see more money for broadband and health care providers in the package.

Democrats said Tuesday they'd remove two provisions that had come under fire from Republicans: as much as $140 million that could have gone to a Silicon Valley transit project and $1.5 million for a bridge carrying cross-border traffic between upstate New York and Canada. 

The fate of other changes from the House bill floated in recent days, such as higher Medicare reimbursement rates for hospitals in three states — New Jersey, Delaware and Rhode Island — that are penalized by the current formula wasn't immediately clear. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the hospital provision as a payoff to the "Acela corridor" in a floor speech Tuesday.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.