House passes USD1.9T pandemic bill on near party-line vote

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House approved a USD1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill in a win for United States (US) President Joe Biden, even as top Democrats tried assuring agitated progressives that they’d revive their derailed drive to boost the minimum wage.

The new president’s vision for flushing cash to individuals, businesses, states and cities battered by COVID-19 passed on a near party-line 219-212 vote yesterday.

That ships the massive measure to the Senate, where Democrats seem bent on resuscitating their minimum wage push and fights could erupt over state aid and other issues.

Democrats said the still-faltering economy and the half-million American lives lost demanded quick, decisive action. GOP lawmakers, they said, were out of step with a public that polling shows largely views the bill favourably.

“I am a happy camper tonight,” California Representative Maxine Waters said on Friday. “This is what America needs. Republicans, you ought to be a part of this. But if you’re not, we’re going without you.”

Republicans said the bill was too expensive and said too few education dollars would be spent quickly to immediately re-open schools. They said it was laden with gifts to Democratic constituencies like labour unions and funnelled money to Democratic-run states they suggested didn’t need it because their budgets had bounced back.

Moderate Democratic Representatives Jared Golden of Maine and Kurt Schrader of Oregon were the only two lawmakers to cross party lines.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi meets with reporters before the House votes to pass a USD1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. PHOTO: AP

That sharp partisan divide is making the fight a showdown over who voters will reward for heaping more federal spending to combat the coronavirus and revive the economy atop the USD4 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 progressives who lost their top priority in a jarring Senate setback on Thursday.

That chamber’s non-partisan 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 USD15 hourly by 2025, doubling the current USD7.25 floor in effect since 2009.

Hoping to revive the effort in some form, Californian Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is considering adding a provision to the Senate version of the COVID-19 relief bill that would penalise large companies that don’t pay workers at least USD15 an hour, said a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

That was in line with ideas floated on Thursday night by Vermont Senators Bernie Sanders, a chief sponsor of the USD15 plan, and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden to boost taxes on corporations that don’t hit certain minimum wage targets.

Californian House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 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 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.