The House cleared a $1.86 trillion COVID-19 relief package Wednesday that would provide an expanded safety net to millions of Americans enduring medical and financial fallout from the year-old pandemic.
The 220-211 vote sends the massive bill, the largest yet in terms of taxpayer commitment since the U.S. economy largely shut down last March, to President Joe Biden’s desk before enhanced unemployment benefits lapse on Sunday.
Biden plans to sign the legislation on Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
The sweeping legislation would offer direct payments of up to $1,400 to millions of households, extend $300 unemployment supplements through Labor Day, infuse state and local governments’ coffers, help schools reopen and bolster efforts to distribute vaccines.
It would increase for a year the child tax credit, make health insurance purchased on federal exchanges less expensive for two years, expand nutrition benefits and provide more assistance for rental housing, among other things.
The measure marked the first major legislative achievement for Biden, who’s scheduled to speak about the pandemic response effort on Thursday night. The bill largely adhered to a framework the president laid out less than two months ago and served as a centerpiece of his 2020 campaign.
House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth said the measure was “aggressive, no doubt about it.” But, the Kentucky Democrat added, “researchers and health professionals have told us ... these investments are needed if we want to save lives and defeat this pandemic once and for all.”
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said robust financial aid is needed because of what she calls a “K-shaped” economic recovery in which the wealthy get richer and the poor fall further behind.
The legislation marks the sixth aid package Congress has passed since last March. But it’s the first to pass without bipartisan support.
Republicans assailed the package as an excessively costly response to an economy they say is already on the mend. House Budget ranking member Jason Smith, R-Mo., denounced the bill as a “socialist wish list” of policy measures that have little to do with the pandemic.
“This isn’t a rescue bill,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said during debate. “It’s a laundry list of left-wing priorities that predate the pandemic and do not meet the needs of American families.”
Public sentiment on the legislation appeared to side with Democrats. A poll from the Pew Research Center, conducted during the first week of March and released Tuesday, shows that about 70 percent of adults support the bill. But only 41 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independents back the package, compared with 94 percent of Democrats.
Wage boost dropped, jobless aid cut
The package that emerged from weeks of legislative bargaining isn’t everything Biden and top Democratic lawmakers had hoped to achieve. Most notably, leaders agreed to drop a provision to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.
That provision was stripped out after the Senate’s parliamentarian determined it violated the rules of the fast-track process known as reconciliation, which Democrats used to avoid the threat of a Republican filibuster.
Senate Democrats reduced weekly unemployment insurance supplements from $400 in the initial House bill to $300. But they extended the length of the program by about a week, from Aug. 29 to Sept. 6, and made the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits exempt from federal taxes for those earning up to $150,000.
The Senate version of the bill also accelerated the phaseout of $1,400 tax rebate checks by lowering the income threshold at which payments cut off for individuals from $100,000 to $80,000 and for joint filers from $200,000 to $160,000.
The Senate passed the package on a party-line vote of 50-49 on Saturday after pulling an all-nighter to dispense with nearly 30 Republican amendments.
While some progressive Democrats were frustrated with the Senate changes, they overwhelmingly voted for the bill.
“I don’t think that the changes the Senate made were good policy or good politics,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told reporters Monday. “However, they were relatively minor in the grand scheme of things with the exception, of course, of the $15 minimum wage.”
The sharp partisan division over the latest aid package marked a shift in political tone from the pandemic aid legislation approved last year.
And it comes as Republicans voiced growing alarm over the nation’s mounting red ink. Combined with the aid bills enacted last year, the latest effort would bring the pandemic response to nearly $5.4 trillion in deficit spending. Over the past year alone since the economy shut down, U.S. debt held by the public has grown by more than $4.4 trillion — about as much new debt as the previous five years combined.
The five previous aid packages were enacted when Democrats controlled the House and Republicans controlled the Senate and the White House. The divided government triggered the need for compromise to get any legislation passed.
Now that Democrats are in control of the House, Senate and White House, they can use the budget reconciliation process to advance legislation without GOP backing in the Senate, although they’ll get only one more shot at that this year.
The Biden administration and congressional Democrats have hinted they’ll use the next round of reconciliation instructions to address infrastructure and climate change. But they’ll need to adopt a fiscal 2022 budget resolution before they’ll be able to use the fast-track process again.
The party will need to wade through challenging debates on taxes, entitlement programs and discretionary spending, reaching consensus between progressives and moderates on several hot-button issues. That will be an especially trying process, with Democrats able to lose only a handful of members in the House and no members in the Senate.
Democratic Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, who also voted against the original House version, was the sole member to break ranks. Golden argued in late February that many of the provisions in the nearly $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package were not directly related to the pandemic or should be addressed in stand-alone bills.
“Although I support the Senate’s effort to reduce the number of wealthier households that will receive stimulus checks, they did not go far enough, and other changes — like removing the minimum wage increase or providing a lower unemployment benefit — undermined policies that I support,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, the other Democratic defector on the initial aid bill last month, reversed course, voting to approve this version of the package.
In a statement, Schrader said while he still had concerns about the “size and scope of this bill,” he believed “the Senate changes provide meaningful relief for Oregonians in need.”
One of those changes, authored by Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would create a $2 billion fund for counties whose economies are largely tied to federal lands and have historically been impacted by federal policies such as restrictions on timber sales.
The bill includes dozens of provisions that Democrats say are necessary to distribute vaccines, fully reopen in-person schooling and prop up the economy during the coming months. Republicans, however, argue that less than 10 percent of the spending is directly related to fighting the pandemic.
GOP lawmakers criticized Democrats for including a provision that would increase the child tax credit from $2,000 to $3,600 for children under 6 and to $3,000 for children ages 6 to 17. The additional benefit would begin to phase out at $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples. Democrats have been pushing similar provisions for years, predating COVID-19.
At a briefing earlier this week, Psaki said it was “absurd” to say the child credit expansion wasn’t tied to the pandemic. She said the economic shutdown and restrictions on child care and in-person schooling have pushed women out of the workforce, adding that Biden supports making the one-year provision permanent.
At a news conference Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked if the sixth coronavirus aid package would be the final one lawmakers take up. “You’re just going to have to ask the virus,” Pelosi told reporters. “It’s just a question of the science. And we will have legislation to address it for as long as it’s there.”