US Senate takes up massive COVID-19 rescue bill

With Vice President Harris breaking a tie vote, Senate begins work on $1.9 trillion spending package sought by Biden

The United States Senate cleared the way for passage of a $19 trillion COVID-19 relief package amid tight security in Washington, DC [Tom Brenner/Reuters]

The United States Senate cleared a key procedural hurdle on Thursday paving the way for its approval this weekend of President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue legislation.

“The United States is facing a once in a century crisis that has sapped millions of jobs from our economy, left millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet and stolen more than half a million American lives,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“The time is now to move forward with bold, strong relief for the American people,” Schumer said.

The massive spending bill includes funding for $1,400 direct payments to millions of middle-income US citizens, $350bn for state and local governments, and $130bn for K-12 public schools.

The legislation provides renewed funding for a US pandemic programme for small businesses and extends federal unemployment benefits for jobless workers.

It includes $30bn in rental and housing assistance and extends a federal moratorium on rental evictions through September.

Vaccines, supplies for testing and tracing also receive additional funding in the bill as the Biden administration ramps up a nationwide effort to vaccinate every US adult by the end of May.

Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill “ill-suited” to the challenge the US faces a year into the pandemic and a “partisan spending spree”.

The bill does not include Biden’s proposed rise in the US minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour, a provision that passed the House of Representatives last week but lacks sufficient support in the Senate.

The Senate, with Biden’s backing, also narrowed the income eligibility standards for the $1,400 cheques to individuals earning less than $80,000 a year.

The enormous legislation adds to the nearly $4 trillion the US Congress previously authorised in 2020 to address the coronavirus pandemic and comes at a time when both the pace of COVID-19 infections and the US’s economic recovery appear to have plateaued.

The Senate vote was 50-50 along party lines between Democrats and Republicans with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie in favour of Democrats. The Senate vote took place amid heightened security measures in Washington, DC, as authorities warned of potential militia threats and the House suspended operations for a day.

Republicans opposed the measure, saying Biden had not followed up on his pledges to pursue bipartisanship and argued the bill is bloated with excess spending.

“Should we really be sending stimulus cheques to people out there who haven’t missed a paycheque,” questioned Senator John Kennedy, a Republican.

“Let’s go through our needs and discuss how much money should be spent. But that’s not how this is being done. This is just raw, gut politics,” Kennedy complained.

Unable to block the bill, Republicans sought to delay the process at the start of the debate by demanding Senate clerks read the bill out loud, a process that could take up to 10 hours.

A new survey by Morning Consult found 71 percent of US voters, including most Republican voters, backed the legislation. Conducted February 26 to March 1, the survey of 1,992 registered voters had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2 percentage points.

The virus has killed more than 519,000 in the US.

Source: Al Jazeera