Dems near relief bill OK by House, ponder wage plan rescue


WASHINGTON (AP) — A $1.9 trillion package aimed at helping the country rebuild from the pandemic seemed headed toward House passage Friday, even as Democrats searched for a way to revive their derailed drive to boost the minimum wage.

A virtual party-line House vote was expected on the COVID-19 relief measure, which embodies President Joe Biden’s push to flush cash to individuals, businesses, states and cities. The White House issued a statement reinforcing its support for the new president’s paramount initial goal.

“The bill would allow the administration to execute its plan to change the course of the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said. “And it would provide Americans and their communities an economic bridge through the crisis.”

Republicans have lined up against the plan, calling it an overpriced and wasteful attempt to help Democratic allies like labor unions and Democratic-run states.

The bill is “a partisan circus” designed to “quickly notch some wins for the president’s buddies,” said Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., top Republican on the House Budget Committee.

That’s making the fight a showdown over which party voters will reward for approving added federal spending to combat the coronavirus and revive the economy, on top of $4 trillion previously passed. The pandemic has killed a half-million Americans, thrown millions out of work and reconfigured the daily lives of nearly everyone from coast to coast.

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 respond to Thursday night’s jarring setback in the Senate.

That chamber’s nonpartisan 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 $15 hourly by 2025, doubling the current $7.25 floor in effect since 2009.

Hoping to revive the effort in some form, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is considering adding a provision to the Senate version of the COVID relief bill that would penalize large companies that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour, said a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal conversations.

That was in line with ideas floated Thursday night by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a chief sponsor of the $15 plan, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would boost taxes on corporations that don’t hit certain minimum wage targets.

But while top Democrats were eager to signal to rank-and-file progressives and liberal voters that they would keep fighting to boost the minimum wage, the idea of prodding companies to boost pay with threatened tax increases faced an uncertain fate.

Many Democrats will likely to be reluctant to give eager Republicans ammunition for their decades-old charge that Democrats love raising taxes.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., sidestepped a question on whether he’d support taxing companies that don’t boost pay, saying of Senate Democrats, “I hesitate to to say anything until they decide on a strategy.”

But progressives were demanding that the Senate press ahead anyway on the minimum wage boost, 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.

“We’re going to have to reform the filibuster, because we have to be able to deliver,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a leader of House progressives.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., another high-profile progressive, also said that Senate rules must be changed, telling reporters that when Democrats meet with their constituents, “We can’t tell them that this didn’t get done because of an unelected parliamentarian.”

Traditionalist senators of both parties, including Biden, a senator for 36 years, have opposed eliminating filibusters because they protect parties’ interests when they are in the Senate minority. Biden also said weeks ago that he didn’t expect the minimum wage increase to survive the Senate’s rules.

The House COVID-19 bill includes the minimum wage increase, so the real battle over its fate will occur when the Senate debates its version over the next two weeks.

The overall relief bill would provide $1,400 payments to individuals, extend emergency unemployment benefits through August, and increase tax credits for children and federal subsidies for health insurance coverage.

It also provides billions of dollars for schools and colleges, state and local governments, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, renters, food producers and struggling industries like airlines, restaurants, bars and live event venues.

Democrats are pushing the massive coronavirus relief measure through Congress under special rules that will let them avoid a Senate GOP filibuster, meaning that if they are united they won’t need any Republican votes.

It also lets the bill move faster, a top priority for Democrats who want the bill on Biden’s desk by the time the most recent round of emergency jobless benefits end on March 14.

But those same Senate rules prohibit provisions with only an “incidental” impact on the federal budget because they are chiefly driven by other policy purposes. MacDonough decided that the minimum wage provision failed that test, according to aides who described her decision on condition of anonymity because it hadn’t been publicly released.

Republicans oppose the $15 minimum wage target as an expense that would hurt businesses and cost jobs.

By Alan Fram

Associated Press

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