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Democrats pushing President Biden's Covid-19 bill through House panels

Democrats pushed half of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan through a House committee Thursday

Joe Biden | US government

AP | PTI  |  Washington 

Joe Biden
Photo: Bloomberg

Democrats pushed half of President Joe Biden's USD 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan through a House committee Thursday, advancing USD 1,400 payments for millions of Americans and other initiatives that Republicans call too costly, economically damaging and brazenly partisan.

The Ways and Means Committee approved its USD 940 billion chunk of Biden's proposal on a 25-18 party-line vote, highlighting a frenzied week that's seeing a dozen House panels fashion contributions to the sprawling measure. On Wednesday, the Education and Labour Committee approved another top Democratic priority a boost in the federal minimum wage from USD 7.25 to USD 15 hourly over five years.

Yes it will. We're very proud of that, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters when asked if the overall House bill would include the minimum wage increase. Its fate remains precarious in the more moderate Senate.

The House bill would provide hundreds of billions for state and local governments and to boost vaccination efforts, raise tax credits for children and increase unemployment benefits and federal health care assistance. Democratic leaders hope for House passage later this month, with Senate approval and a bill on Biden's desk by mid-March.

In committee after committee, Republicans futilely launched waves of amendments at the Democratic measures in an attempt to derail the new president's top initial priority a massive bill aimed at stemming the deadly pandemic and resuscitating an economy that's shed 10 million jobs and shuttered countless businesses.

And while Democrats fended the amendments off, their control of the House and Senate is razor thin. Divisions between progressives and moderates and solid GOP opposition means the bill's final contours can still shift.

Republicans' amendments spotlighted what they see as political soft spots they can exploit. Their themes were clear: Democrats are overspending, hurting workers and employers' job markets, being too generous to some immigrants, inviting fraud and rewarding political allies allegations that Democrats dismiss as ludicrous.

And while the GOP amendments were beaten back, they forced Democrats to take positions that could tee up GOP campaign ads for the 2022 elections.

There were amendments to reduce the USD 400 extra in weekly jobless benefits Democrats want to provide through August and exempt the smallest businesses from Democrats' plans to gradually raise the minimum wage to USD 15 hourly from USD 7.25. would have limited emergency grants for undergraduates to US citizens and barred federal subsidies for some job-based health insurance to people without Social Security numbers, effectively targeting many immigrants.

GOP proposals would also have put strings on emergency funds to help schools reopen safely, required that schools offer in-person classes or give the money to parents for education savings accounts if they remain closed. Still would have ensured that aid for renters, homeowners and the airline industry didn't extend long after the pandemic ends, and divided $26 billion for urban transportation systems between cities and rural areas, which many Republicans represent.

I don't know if the White House knows this, but you're supposed to be creating jobs, not killing them, said Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, top Republican on the Ways and Means panel.

Biden campaigned on reuniting a country riven by President Donald Trump's divisive four years. He met two weeks ago with 10 GOP senators to discuss the COVID-19 plan in a session that seemed cordial but has produced no visible movement.

Democrats say attempts to compromise with Republicans wasted time and resulted in a package that proved too small when President Barack Obama sought an economic stimulus compromise in 2009, his first year. They want to finish this initial Biden goal without any stumbles and before emergency jobless benefits expire on March 14.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., eyeing 2022 elections that he hopes will make him speaker of a GOP-run House, suggested Republicans were ready to work to restore jobs, reopen schools and provide vaccines to those who want it. But he said Democrats' policy distractions will only make America weaker and bring our recovery to a halt.

Democrats disputed Republican assertions that, for example, a proposed USD 400 weekly pandemic unemployment benefit was so generous it would discourage people from seeking jobs.

The whole force of this amendment is to not, quote unquote, spoil people by giving them too much money, said Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis. She said it suggested people who've lost jobs do not deserve to live above a starvation-level wage.

Even so, Republicans voiced concerns about the sheer size of the USD 1.9 trillion package. Big doesn't necessarily mean good, said Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio.

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First Published: Fri, February 12 2021. 13:38 IST