U.S. Democrats are anxious for Congress to pass President Joe Biden's top priority — his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill — in the next two weeks. Their biggest challenge lies just ahead: getting it through a Senate where they have the slimmest of majorities.
The House of Representatives narrowly approved the bill to fight the pandemic and boost the economy early Saturday. The action now moves to the Senate, where Democrats don't expect much if any Republican help, even though polls indicate a majority of Americans — around 70% — favor the measure.
That means Democrat Vice President Kamala Harris may have to cast a tie-breaking vote in a chamber where Republicans control 50 seats and Democrats and their allies control the other 50. Even this outcome depends on all the Democrats staying united behind the first major bill to come through Congress in the Biden administration.
"We're moving ahead with a bill that probably will get no Republican votes in the Senate, but will have broad Republican support in the country," Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat, said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday.
Republicans in Congress say the plan is too expensive and includes things like transportation projects that have nothing to do with relief for COVID-19.
"It's $1.9 trillion, more than half of it won't even be spent in this calendar year ... So how could it be about COVID relief? No one expects a year from now that we'll be in the COVID crisis we are in now," Republican Senator Rob Portman told ABC's "This Week."
FIGHT OVER MINIMUM WAGE
Senators are expected to start proposing amendments this week, as they try to decide how to address a minimum wage increase that progressive Democrats are passionate about.
The House-passed COVID-19 aid bill would raise the national hourly minimum wage for the first time since 2009, to $15 from $7.25. But the Senate's rules expert said the wage hike could not be included as long as Democrats are using a maneuver that allows the coronavirus bill to pass with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes needed to advance most legislation in the 100-seat chamber.
Top Senate Democrats are considering trying to get around this setback by using the tax code to incentivize a higher wage, but it's unclear how popular this is. Coons said Sunday he had not seen the tax code proposal, while noting there will be other chances to raise the minimum wage.
Progressives want the wage increase kept in the COVID-19 bill. But some moderate Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin favor a smaller increase in the minimum wage, to about $11 an hour.
"We will figure out a way to do this," another Democrat, Senator Sherrod Brown, told NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday. "Democrats are united in raising wages ... we're going to make it happen."
Both chambers must pass the same version of the bill before sending it to Biden for signing into law. Democrats want this to happen by March 14, when enhanced unemployment benefits expire.
The measure would pay for vaccines and send a new round of aid to households, small businesses, and state and local governments. The big-ticket items include $1,400 direct payments to individuals, a $400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through Aug. 29, and help for those in difficulty paying rents and home mortgages during the pandemic.
Democrats say the package is needed to fight a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work.
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