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July 30, 2021

US House expected to advance Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The U.S. House of Representatives was expected to approve a budget measure on Friday that would enable Democrats to push President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package through Congress without Republican support in a process that will likely take weeks.

The U.S. Senate narrowly approved a version of the budget plan at the end of a marathon debate that went into Friday morning.

House leaders said lawmakers will begin a procedural vote around midday, and if that succeeds, the budget will be deemed adopted.

Democrats and the Biden administration have said they want comprehensive legislation to move quickly to address a pandemic that has killed more than 450,000 Americans and left millions jobless.

Data showing weakness in the U.S. jobs market proves the need for aggressive action by Congress on a coronavirus relief bill, President Joe Biden said.

“It’s people’s lives. Real-life people are hurting and we can fix it,” Biden said at the White House. “When we help them we are also helping our competitive capacity,” he said.

U.S. employment growth rebounded less than expected in January and job losses the prior month were deeper than initially thought.

Once the budget resolution is passed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it would be time for lawmakers to get busy writing the actual COVID-19 legislation reflecting Biden’s plan, with the goal of getting it through the House by month’s end.

“Next week, we will be writing the legislation to create a path to final passage for the Biden American Rescue Plan, so that we can finish our work before the end of February,” Pelosi said in a letter to fellow Democrats.

That would allow time for the Senate to approve the COVID-19 legislation also before mid-March, when special unemployment benefits that were added during the pandemic expire.

Democrats want to spend the $1.9 trillion to speed up COVID-19 vaccines throughout the nation. Other funds would extend the special unemployment benefits and make direct payments to people to help them pay bills and stimulate the economy.

They also want to send money to state and local governments.

Republicans have proposed a COVID-19 plan that would be roughly one-third the cost of Biden’s proposal. While their plan dovetails with the Democrats’ in some respects, Biden has deemed it as too anemic to put the country back on its feet after a year of suffering through the pandemic.

Marathon session

Early Friday, at the end of a session lasting about 15 hours, the Senate found itself in a 50-50 partisan deadlock over passage, with the winning “yes” vote for the Democrats provided by Vice President Kamala Harris, using her power to break a tie.

This was a “giant first step” toward passing the kind of comprehensive coronavirus aid bill that Biden has put at the top of his legislative agenda, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Shortly before the final vote, Democrats flexed their muscles by reversing three earlier votes that Republicans had won. Those would have used the coronavirus aid battle to back a Canada-to-United States oil pipeline, support hydraulic fracking for oil and gas, and bar coronavirus aid to immigrants living in the United States illegally.

They were overturned by Harris, casting her first vote to break a 50-50 tie since being sworn in on Jan. 20.

Before finishing its work, the Senate approved a series of amendments to the budget outline. The House vote Friday is expected to accept the Senate’s changes.

Among the changes, the Senate added a measure calling for increased funding for rural hospitals whose resources are strained by the pandemic.

The approved amendments do not carry the force of law in a budget blueprint, but can serve as guidelines for developing the actual coronavirus aid bill in coming weeks.

Passing the budget plan in both houses would let Democrats enact Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal over the opposition of Republicans, by unlocking a legislative tool called reconciliation. That lets them pass a bill with a simple majority in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes normally needed to move legislation forward in the 100-seat chamber.

Budget reconciliation measures have been enacted into law at least 21 times since 1980, according to the Congressional Research Service. Republicans used the tactic when they controlled Congress in 2017 to pass a sweeping tax reform bill without Democratic support.

A group of 10 Republican senators who met with Biden at the White House on Monday sent him a letter on Thursday saying that significant amounts of money already appropriated by Congress had not yet been spent. Last year, Congress passed emergency bills totaling around $4 trillion to deal with COVID-19 crisis.

In early voting on Thursday, senators delivered a message to the Biden administration that direct payments should be tailored to those who need the money the most, as they voted 99-1 to recommend high-income earners not qualify for a new round of government checks that could amount to $1,400 for individuals.

Senators did not specify income limits. An earlier round of payments reduced the checks for individuals earning more than $75,000 or married couples earning $150,000

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; additional reporting by David Morgan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Peter Graff and Alistair Bell)

© Copyright Thomson Reuters 2021


Richard Cowan

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