Biden presses Senate Democrats to pass COVID-19 relief

US president pushes for Senate action on $1.9 trillion federal aid package as Republicans line up in opposition.

President Joe Biden is urging Senate Democrats to hold together to pass his proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue plan for the US [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

United States President Joe Biden on Tuesday urged Senate Democrats to stay focused on passing a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package now pending in Congress despite Republican opposition.

Biden met by virtual conference call with Senate Democrats during their weekly party meetings on Tuesday and spoke with a group of 10 Democratic Senators on Monday.

Quick passage of the $1.9 trillion bill is Biden’s top priority as his new administration seeks to get control of the coronavirus pandemic in the US and begin to turnaround the struggling US economy.

“President Biden made his pitch today to our entire caucus and he said we need to pass this bill and pass it soon,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“That’s what the American people sent us here to do,” Schumer said.

Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress have set an ambitious timeline to get the $1.9 trillion bill to the president for his signature by March 14 and Schumer said the Senate is on track to meet that deadline.

But Senate Democrats, faced with Republican opposition, must stay unified amid disputes about unemployment benefits and the minimum wage.

Republicans view the legislation as excessive and unnecessary as the US moves towards recovery from the pandemic, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“This is a wildly expensive proposal, largely unrelated to the problem,” McConnell told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday.

“We’ll be fighting this every way that we can. It is my hope that at the end, Senate Republicans will unanimously oppose it,” McConnell said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the Republican weekly policy lunch on Capitol Hill that he expects all 50 Republican senators will oppose Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue plan [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

The US Senate is preparing to debate and vote on the legislation this week. The bill cleared the House on a party-line vote on February 27 and the Senate now will consider a series of amendments before sending it back to the House for final approval.

The bill would extend federal unemployment payments to jobless workers that were enacted by Congress on a temporary basis at the beginning of the pandemic and are set to expire on March 14.

The enhanced payments would be available through the end of August and would increase from $300 per week to $400 per week.

Some Democrats are pushing to trim the increase and lengthen the extension of time for the benefit.

The US unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in January with 10.1 million people out of work, about double the pre-pandemic rate of joblessness.

Biden has proposed increasing the US minimum wage to $15 an hour in the legislation and the Democratic-controlled House approved the measure. But the minimum wage increase faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have said they do not support the minimum wage increase.

With the Senate divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, opposition from Manchin and Sinema means there likely are not enough votes in the Senate to pass the wage increase.

“I expect a hearty debate. I expect some late nights on the floor. But the American people are overwhelmingly in support of this legislation,” Schumer said, citing public opinion

The number of new cases in the US has begun to decline and hit the lowest point since October – 48,000 on Monday, according to The COVID Tracking Project. Deaths and hospitalisations have also trended lower as vaccines have begun to be distributed.

Biden administration officials responsible for managing the US response to the pandemic, however, are warning that the COVID-19 numbers appear to have plateaued and could begin to rise as new, more infectious and deadly variants of the virus spread.

“I remain deeply concerned about a potential shift in the trajectory of the pandemic,” CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing on March 1.

“At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Walensky said.

The US has suffered more deaths than any other nation with 515,000 dead, according to global data tracked by Johns Hopkins University.

Source: Al Jazeera