House poised to vote on Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill

The House will vote on President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Friday, including a provision raising the federal minimum wage which faces significant opposition in the Senate.

The bill, called the American Rescue Plan, includes $1,400 in direct checks for Americans making under $75,000, a $400 per week supplemental unemployment bonus, money for vaccine distribution, and funding to aid schools and state and local governments. Although previous coronavirus relief bills have passed with bipartisan support, the bill is expected to pass in the House along party lines, as Republicans have criticized the high price tag and the inclusion of provisions which they see as unrelated to the crisis.

The vote in the House comes days after the U.S. passed the grim milestone of 500,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus. Millions have lost their jobs due to the economic fallout, and supplemental unemployment assistance established by Congress late last year is set to expire in mid-March. 

The American Rescue Plan is broadly popular among Americans, earning support from Republican voters as well as Democrats and independents. A poll by Morning Consult/Politico released on Thursday shows that 76% of Americans support the package, including 60% of Republicans.

“The need is great. The opportunity is there,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday.

The bill set to pass in the House also includes a provision raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, even though the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the bill cannot include an increase of the federal minimum wage if Congress uses the budget reconciliation process.

Congressional Democrats opted to use the procedural maneuver known as budget reconciliation to pass the bill, allowing it to be approved by only a simple majority in the Senate. Most legislation requires 60 votes in the Senate to advance, so the budget reconciliation process allows Democrats — who hold a 50-seat majority — to pass the bill without any Republican votes.

There are strict rules for utilizing the budget reconciliation process, such as the “Byrd rule,” which requires that all provisions in the bill be budget-related, and must not increase the federal deficit after a 10-year budget window. Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that the minimum wage hike did not fit the parameters for budget reconciliation.

In a statement on Thursday, Pelosi said that MacDonough’s decision was “disappointing.”

“House Democrats believe that the minimum wage hike is necessary. Therefore, this provision will remain in the American Rescue Plan on the Floor tomorrow,” Pelosi said. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 has not been increased since 2009.

However, it’s unclear that the provision raising the minimum wage would have been included in the final bill even if MacDonough had ruled that it was possible to include a wage hike in the bill. At least two Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, had expressed concerns about raising the minimum wage. Without support from all 50 Democrats in the Senate, the bill’s prospects would be doomed.

Senator Bernie Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee and an outspoken advocate for raising the minimum wage, said Thursday that he would introduce an amendment to the package to “take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour and to provide small businesses with the incentives they need to raise wages.”

“That amendment must be included in this reconciliation bill,” Sanders said.

Once the Senate considers its version of the bill, progressives in the House could threaten to withhold their support for the final package unless some kind of minimum wage hike is included. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested on Thursday that progressive members of the House should pressure their own party in ways similar to conservative Democrats in the Senate.

“There are progressive Democrats that have that muscle in the House,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “If we as a party decide to stand down on our promise of elevating the minimum wage, I think that’s extraordinarily spurious and it’s something that as a party we could have a further conversation about how to fight for it.”

Raising the minimum wage is widely popular, with a 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center showing that 67% of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $15. It even has support in some red states, as demonstrated by a ballot initiative in Florida to increase the minimum wage increase to $15 by 2026 which passed with support from more than 60% of voters in the last election. 

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