By Andrew Duehren and Kristina Peterson
WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats sought to bridge differences over
jobless benefits, aid for state and local governments and $1,400
direct payments as they aim to complete a $1.9 trillion coronavirus
relief package and pass it through their chamber in the coming
President Biden joined a virtual lunch meeting of Senate
Democrats on Tuesday to discuss the bill, after meeting with some
moderate Democrats on Monday, as lawmakers look to make alterations
to the legislation.
The moderate Democrats have discussed specifying that some of
the $350 billion in proposed aid to state and local governments be
used to expand broadband access. Lawmakers are also looking at
changing who is eligible to receive the direct payments and
reducing a proposed $400 weekly federal supplement to jobless aid
During the call, Mr. Biden spoke for roughly 10 minutes and
urged Senate Democrats to stay united on the legislation and pass
it quickly, according to people familiar with the comments.
Senators discussed among themselves the size of the jobless
payments, according to one of the people.
A roughly $900 billion relief bill Congress approved in December
offered an additional $300 to weekly unemployment payments until
March 14, and the current proposal would increase the payment by
$100 and extend it through August. Some lawmakers, including Senate
Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) are pushing to have the
supplement last through September.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), who was among the group who met
with Mr. Biden Monday, said on Tuesday he didn't think Congress
should increase the size of the jobless payments as the U.S. ramps
up vaccine distribution, as it could discourage workers from
returning to jobs.
"It's kinda hard to explain, you're getting a bump up now when
we're basically getting ready to come off," Mr. Manchin said
Reducing the size of the jobless payments faces opposition from
other Democrats, though. Earlier last year, Congress had set the
unemployment payments at $600 a week in an initial relief round.
The payments are in addition to state jobless benefits.
"The president believes, I believe, that the supplement should
be $400," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) said.
Democrats are expected to approve the legislation -- which also
expands the child tax credit and funds vaccine distribution, among
other measures -- in the Senate without Republican support. GOP
lawmakers have attacked the size of the proposal, arguing that it
is wasteful and unnecessary after the last relief package. The U.S.
Chamber of Commerce said Tuesday it opposed the bill, saying it
wasn't sufficiently targeted, pointing to the higher savings rate
for U.S. households and better-than-expected tax collections in
"This isn't a recipe to safely reopen America. To the degree it
even addresses the pandemic, it's more like a plan to keep us shut
down," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said. He
said Democrats were "taking advantage of the crisis to check off
unrelated liberal policies."
Democrats have cast their bill as a necessary measure to buoy
the economy and return life to normal.
"The economy is not strong enough to sustain things on its own.
We need strong relief to get the economy going so it can continue
on an upward path on its own," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
(D., N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday, noting the chamber
could begin debate on the bill as soon as Wednesday.
In remarks Tuesday announcing that the U.S. would have enough
Covid-19 vaccines for all American adults by the end of May, Mr.
Biden again urged the Senate to quickly pass the relief plan.
"Despite the optimism, without new resources, our entire effort
will be set back," he said. "The bottom line is we need the
American Rescue Plan now, now."
In a recent Wall Street Journal survey, economists on average
expected GDP to expand nearly 4.9% this year, after falling 3.5%
last year. While the pace of U.S. residents receiving the
coronavirus vaccine has risen, it is likely to take months for the
country to reach herd immunity, medical experts say. Another
resurgence in the virus could cause more businesses to close or
again scale back operations.
Democrats in the House passed the relief bill last week, though
they will need to approve the bill again after the Senate changes
it before it can go to Mr. Biden for his signature. The House
version of the legislation offered $1,400 checks to individuals
making less than $75,000 and married couples making less than
$150,000 before phasing down the payments. Those payments go to
zero once an individual's income reaches $100,000 and married
couples' income hits $200,000.
Some Democrats in the Senate want to cut off the payments at
lower income levels.
"I think we could look at how we cap the pandemic checks to
families so that they're going to those people that most need the
help," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.).
Rep. Richie Neal (D., Mass.), chairman of the House Ways and
Means Committee, said he would favor maintaining the House
proposals on the checks.
"I'm all in on what we did in the House," he said.
Others in the Senate are pushing to make sure that some of the
aid for state and local governments is used to finance an expansion
of broadband access. Ms. Shaheen said she wants to see more funding
for broadband and hospitals in the bill.
Because Democrats are using a process called reconciliation to
pass the bill with a simple majority in the Senate, they have faced
restrictions on what they can include in the legislation. Using
reconciliation also means Democrats must keep the price tag at the
$1.9 trillion they originally proposed, so adding funding for new
priorities would require them to reduce the cost of other
The Senate parliamentarian ruled last week that raising the
minimum age to $15 an hour ran afoul of reconciliation's rules,
which will force Democrats to remove the measure in the Senate.
A backup plan to compel companies to raise wages for workers
through the tax code fell apart over the weekend. Mr. Sanders, a
major proponent of the $15 an hour, said on Monday he will try to
amend the bill to include the $15 an hour minimum wage, anyway.
Many progressives have called on Democrats to ignore the
parliamentarian and raise the wage, a step the White House has
Echoing his public comments, Mr. Biden said on the call with
Senate Democrats that he was committed to raising the minimum wage
to $15 an hour, possibly through a stand-alone piece of
legislation, according to lawmakers.
Write to Andrew Duehren at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 02, 2021 18:21 ET (23:21 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.