US Congress approves $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill

The US House of Representatives vote sends the bill to President Joe Biden for his signature, overcoming the partisan divide.

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gives a thumbs up as the House of Representatives voted on President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Wednesday [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

The US House of Representatives has given final approval to a $1.9 trillion emergency spending measure designed to mitigate the financial toll of the coronavirus pandemic, putting the United States economy on a path to recovery.

The House voted largely along party lines, 220-211, to send the legislation, approved by the US Senate on March 6, to President Joe Biden, who will sign it on Friday.

“This bill represents a historic, historic victory for the American people,” Biden said at the White House following the bill’s passage.

Biden, who campaigned in 2020 on bringing an end to the pandemic crisis, plans to address the nation on Thursday night.

One of the largest spending packages in US history, the bill authorises $1,400 direct cheques to an estimated 160 million US citizens, extends federal jobless benefits of $300 a week to 10 million unemployed workers, and provides hundreds of billions in subsidies and bailouts.

More than 29 million people have been confirmed infected with the coronavirus and about 528,000 have died from COVID-19 in the United States since the pandemic began a year ago.

“This bill provides direct financial relief to more than 80 percent of American families and helps feed hungry Americans and provides financial support so families can afford health care,” said Representative John Yarmuth, the Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee.

“This legislation has been called one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in modern history,” Yarmuth said.

What is in the bill?

In addition to the direct payments and unemployment benefit extension, the bill includes $350bn for federal aid to states, cities and tribal governments to help cover budget shortfalls incurred during the pandemic.

It provides $130bn in funding for primary and secondary public schools to begin to reopen and recover from shutdowns that have caused US students to lose up to a year of their education.

The legislation includes $14bn for distribution and supplies of vaccines and includes $8.5bn for rural healthcare providers.

The US government already plans to distribute enough vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to vaccinate every US adult by the end of May. So far, more than 123 million doses of vaccine have been distributed, according to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Biden plans to order the US purchase of another 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is being co-produced with Merck, a White House official told the Reuters news agency.

With millions out of work and unable to keep up with rent, the bill extends a federal moratorium on evictions through September and provides $45bn in rental and mortgage assistance.

The bill is expected to boost incomes of the poorest US citizens by 20 percent and would cut taxes for middle-class families with children by an average of $6,000, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.

Claudia Sahm, senior fellow at the Jain Family Institute, told Al Jazeera that the economic relief measures included in the bill are “absolutely needed”.

“It is one year ago from tomorrow, March 11, that the bottom fell out in the United States. Tragically, we are still in a pandemic, we are still losing loved-ones every day, and we are 9.5 million jobs short of where we were last February before COVID came,” Sahm said.

She acknowledged that the relief package could lead to some inflation, but said it would be more harmful to wait to provide support for hard-hit families.

“What the Democrats have learned is that going too small can be disastrous,” Sahm said.

“This relief package is the kind of forceful push to a recovery for everyone that we needed in 2012, in 2013, and we didn’t get it. Yes, there are risks… But it’s really, really harmful if it takes years for people to get back to work (and) get their families back on track.”

Republican objections

Republicans objected to the massive spending package as a waste of federal resources that would further add to the US’s national debt when a better course of action would be to simply reopen the economy.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected member of the House, called the $1.9 trillion bill “reckless, irresponsible and the wrong thing to do” and warned it would “enslave” future generations to a mountain of debt.

But there was little Republicans, who are in the minority in the House, could do to stop the legislation.

Greene offered a dilatory motion to adjourn on Wednesday which forced legislators to take an extra vote and caused about an hour’s delay in proceedings. The motion failed by a vote of 149-235 with 40 of Greene’s Republican colleagues voting with Democrats to move on with business.

Source: Al Jazeera