US House approves Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan

Included in the legislation are $1,400 direct payments to individuals and $400 a week unemployment benefit through August.

The Democrat-led legislative has been complicated by the Senate's rules expert, who said that they cannot include an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour in the package [J Scott Applewhite/AP]
The Democrat-led legislative has been complicated by the Senate's rules expert, who said that they cannot include an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour in the package [J Scott Applewhite/AP]

The US House of Representatives has approved in a late-night vote President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill, as Democrats who control the chamber steered the sweeping measure towards approval.

The bill cleared the House on a party-line vote of 219 to 212 early on Saturday.

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

Biden welcomed the bill’s passage in the House and said he hoped the Senate would take it up quickly.

“We have no time to waste,” he told reporters on Saturday morning.

“If we act now – decisively, quickly and boldly – we can finally get ahead of this virus, we can finally get our economy moving again. The people of this country have suffered far too much for too long. We need to relieve that suffering.”

Earlier, the House Rules Committee turned back many Republican attempts to modify the package and sent it to the House floor for debate.

Democrats said the package was needed to fight a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work, while Republicans criticised it as too expensive.

The measure would pay for vaccines and medical supplies and send a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments.

Democrats aimed to get the bill for Biden to sign into law before mid-March, when enhanced unemployment benefits and some other types of aid are due to expire.

But their path has been complicated by the Senate’s rules expert, who said on Thursday that they cannot include an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour in the package.

Minimum wage debate

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had predicted the bill would pass Congress with or without the increase, but said Democrats would not give up on the matter.

“We will not stop until we very soon pass the $15 minimum wage,” she said at a news conference.

Republicans who have broadly backed previous COVID-19 spending said another $1.9 trillion is simply too much. The White House and some economists have argued a big package is needed to revive the world’s largest economy.

Opinion polls have found broad public support for the package.

“The only place this is a partisan issue is here in Washington,” said Democratic Representative Jim McGovern in debate in the House Rules Committee. “We are here because people are hurting and communities are struggling.”

Pelosi is counting on nearly all of her rank and file to get the bill passed before sending it to a 50-50 Senate where Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote [File: Nam Y Huh/AFP]

Biden has focused his first weeks in office on tackling the greatest public health crisis in a century, which has upended most aspects of American life.

Pelosi counted on nearly all of her rank and file to get the bill passed before sending it to a 50-50 Senate where Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote.

Minimum wage rise debate

The House bill would raise the national hourly minimum wage for the first time since 2009, to $15 from $7.25. The increase is a top priority for progressive Democrats.

But that is unlikely to win approval in the Senate.

The chamber’s parliamentarian ruled on Thursday that, unlike other elements of the sweeping bill, it could not be passed with just a simple majority of 50 senators plus Harris, rather than the 60 needed to advance most legislation in the 100-seat chamber.

At least two Senate Democrats oppose the $15 hourly figure, along with most Republicans. Some are floating a smaller increase, in the range of $10 to $12 per hour.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer might add a provision that would penalise large corporations that do not pay their workers a $15 minimum wage, a Senate Democratic aide said.

Among the big-ticket items in the bill are $1,400 direct payments to individuals, a $400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through August 29, and help for those having difficulties paying their rent and home mortgages during the pandemic.

An array of business interests also have weighed in behind Biden’s “America Rescue Plan” Act, as the bill is called.

Efforts to craft a bipartisan coronavirus aid bill fizzled early on, with fierce opposition from the Republicans.

Despite Republican opposition in Washington, nearly seven of 10 Americans, or 68 percent, said they supported the economic stimulus plan as of February 1, according to a public opinion survey of 1,075 US adults by Quinnipiac University. A minority of 24 percent in the survey said they opposed it.

Bipartisan majorities in Congress had previously passed more than $4 trillion in COVID-19 relief spending in seven separate measures during 2020.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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