U.S. House tees up vote on Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives moved on Friday toward a late-night vote on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill, as Democrats who narrowly control the chamber steered the sweeping measure toward approval.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol dome is seen in Washington, U.S., December 17, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

Final passage appeared likely after the measure cleared a procedural hurdle by a partyline vote of 219 to 210.

With Republicans lining up in opposition, Democrats who hold a slim majority have few votes to spare.

“I am a happy camper tonight. This is what America needs,” Democratic Representative Maxine Waters said in debate on the House floor.

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 criticized 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 aim 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.

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

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

Opinion polls have found broad public support for the package.

Republicans who have broadly backed previous COVID-19 spending say another $1.9 trillion is simply too much. They said too much would go to Democratic priorities they called unnecessary, and only a fraction to directly fighting the virus.

“We need targeted tailored relief that actually helps the American people, not this $2 trillion boondoggle,” Republican Representative Debbie Lesko said.

The White House and some economists say a big package is needed to revive the world’s largest economy.

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 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.

MINIMUM WAGE HIKE

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.

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 to penalize large corporations that do not pay a $15 minimum wage, a Senate Democratic aide said.

The bill’s big-ticket items include $1,400 direct payments to individuals, a $400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through Aug. 29, and help for those in difficulty paying rents and home mortgages during the pandemic.

An array of business interests also has 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, shortly after Biden was sworn in as president on Jan. 20, following a series of bipartisan bills enacted in 2020.

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