Senate begins considering relief package; Democrats to end weekly $400 COVID-19 unemployment in August

By Sarah D. Wire
Los Angeles Times/TNS

WASHINGTON - The weekly $400 federal unemployment supplements included in the pending economic aid package being considered by Congress will stop in August rather than being stretched through September, as some Senate Democrats had requested.

The Senate began formal consideration of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief measure Thursday, a day after Senate leaders agreed to narrow by several million people which Americans will receive $1,400 stimulus checks. The concession was intended to appease moderate Democrats worried that too many high-wage earners would receive the payments.

In exchange, some senators had pushed to extend unemployment benefits for the full six months that President Joe Biden initially requested, rather than the five months approved by the House. But the change did not make it into the final version of the bill. The bill provides a $400 weekly federal subsidy on top of state benefits.

Congress traditionally breaks for the month of August, and some lawmakers worried ending the benefits that month might lead to a gap before Congress can act again.

The Senate waited to release its version until it received assurance from the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation that the legislation complies with budget reconciliation rules, the process that Democrats are using to pass the bill quickly without needing Republican votes.

With that assurance in hand, the Senate voted to begin consideration of the economic aid package and moved to substitute the House bill with the Senate version.

The Senate bill also removed an increase to $15 a hour in the federal minimum wage because the Senate parliamentarian said it would not comply would reconciliation rules.

Republicans largely oppose the measure as unneeded and wasteful. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., requested a full reading of the more than 600-page bill, a process that could take more than 10 hours and substantially delay its progress.

But Democrats remain confident they have the votes for final passage.

Once a reading is completed, the Senate will begin up to 20 hours of debate, followed by what is called a vote-a-rama. Senators are allowed to submit any amendment they want.

Republicans have pledged to make the process as difficult for Democrats as possible, either by making them vote on hundreds of amendments, or making them vote down politically popular amendments.

Democrats are expected to have the votes to reject most amendments. There is no time limit on the process, which normally ends when objecting senators run out of steam. Johnson said he is asking Republicans to sign up for shifts to keep it going as long as possible.

Running 24 hours a day, the whole process could take the full weekend to complete, pushing back a final vote Democrats had hoped would take place by Friday.

“No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said.

Unless Democrats can persuade a Republican to join them, it will take all 48 Democrats, two independents and a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris to pass the bill.

The GOP delay tactics may complicate Democrats’ plan to have the bill signed into law before unemployment benefits expire for more than 10 million Americans on March 14. Because the bill was changed in the Senate, the House will have to vote again, and will probably have to accept whatever the Senate sends over.

In the Senate bill, $1,400 checks will go to single filers with an annual income under $75,000, with the amount phased out entirely for those with incomes of $80,000 and higher.

Joint filers with annual incomes of less than $150,000 would each receive the full amount, but those who make more than $160,000 would get no check. Those filing as a head of household who make less than $112,500 will get the full amount, phasing out at $120,000.

Under the House bill, payments were phased out at higher income levels: $100,000 for individuals, $200,000 for couples and $150,000 for heads of households.

Progressive research group the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates the change means 2.37 million fewer Californians would receive money under the Senate bill compared with the House bill. Nationally, the group estimates 16.4 million fewer Americans will get a check.

The bill also expands the child tax credit to $3,000 from $2,000 - and to $3,600 for children under the age of 6, and expands the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit up to $4,000 for the child care expenses of one child, and up to $8,000 for two or more children.

It includes $14 billion for vaccine distribution; $49 billion for COVID-19 testing, tracing and genomic sequencing; and $8 billion to expand the public health workforce.

The bill also provides $40 billion to support child care, including an emergency stabilization fund for child care providers.

It also includes $12 billion for nutrition programs including SNAP, WIC and Pandemic EBT and extends the 15% SNAP increase through September. And it sets aside $45 billion for rental, mortgage and utility assistance.

Republicans say that the bill doesn’t focus narrowly enough on vaccines and getting people back to work or school. Two transit projects they complained about in the House bill, including one in Silicon Valley, were removed in the Senate version.

GOP senators have also taken issue with $350 billion in the measure for state and local governments grappling with a loss of revenue during the economic downturn, saying the formula used to distribute the money doesn’t fairly consider whether a state’s economy is suffering.