Passage of the $1.9 trillion rescue package is the first legislative win for Biden seven weeks after he took office and vowed to make additional COVID-19 relief his earliest priority.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., walks through Statuary Hall, during the vote on the Democrat's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Washington.
The House on Wednesday passed the Senate-amended version of Democrats' $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, clearing the last legislative hurdle in Congress that sends the historic measure to President Joe Biden to sign into law.
Passage of the wide-ranging rescue package is the first legislative victory for Biden seven weeks after he took office and vowed to make additional COVID-19 relief his earliest priority. The bill comes at the one-year mark of the pandemic in the U.S. as the country sees steady progress of vaccine rollout and slow economic gains but still grapples with the health and economic fallout for millions of Americans and businesses.
In a nearly party-line vote, 220-211, the House again passed the rescue package about two weeks after its first passage in the lower chamber. No Republicans supported the legislation, while one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, opposed the relief package.
Last week, the Senate made a number of significant changes to the House bill, including the elimination of the $15 minimum wage hike, limitations to stimulus check eligibility and changes to unemployment insurance. After a marathon overnight amendment process and passage in the Senate, the House needed to approve those changes before the bill could make its way to the president's desk. Biden will sign it into law on Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced.
"We have acted with the urgency this pandemic demands, while following every House rule and proper procedure required for a budget reconciliation package," House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth of Kentucky said Wednesday. "We promised relief. The president promised relief and now help is on the way."
Democrats have framed the bill as one of the most progressive pieces of legislation to ever come out of Congress. The party used the budget reconciliation process to circumvent the 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation – meaning they would need at least 10 Republicans to join them – and instead only required a simple majority to pass it.
But the minimum wage provision was ultimately stripped out of the bill because it didn't meet budget rules. Raising the wage to $15 an hour has been a top party priority for years and, while progressives cited frustrations for its removal and other changes made by the Senate, Democrats uniformly agreed that COVID-19 relief was a timely necessity.
The rescue package includes a third round of stimulus checks at $1,400, enhanced federal unemployment benefits of $300 a week and billions in funding to reopen schools, help small businesses and expand testing and vaccine operations. The bill includes one of Democrats' biggest priorities that got stripped from relief bills passed last year: $350 billion in state, local and tribal aid.
Individuals who make under $75,000 will receive direct payments with eligibility phasing out at $80,000. Couples who earn less than $150,000 will get $2,800 but the cutoff for joint filers is now at $160,000.
In terms of unemployment insurance, Democrats were racing to pass the bill before federal benefits ran out by Sunday. Now, unemployed Americans will keep receiving an extra $300 a week – on top of their state benefits – until Sept. 6. The party initially pushed for the weekly amount to be increased to $400 but reduced it to appease moderate Democratic senators.
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Additionally, the bill temporarily raises the child tax credit to help lift children out of poverty. Families can now receive up to $3,600 per child per year.
While a big win for the White House, passage of more COVID-19 aid was also a major test for Democrats, who needed to keep their party together since they hold narrow majorities in both chambers. They pursued budget reconciliation to fast-track relief but encountered challenges of keeping their party unified especially since they couldn't afford to lose any Democratic votes in the 50-50 Senate. After making some concessions to moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the bill was passed along party lines in the Senate with only a few members lost in the House.
Democrats, however, were ultimately unable to win over any Republicans in the House or the Senate. The GOP lashed out at Democrats for taking a go-it-alone approach on what they argued was a bloated package that included party priorities unrelated to the health crisis. While some questioned the need for another pandemic-related bill, others wanted a much smaller bill with "targeted" relief that would clock in at well under a trillion dollars.
Republicans have repeatedly taken aim at Biden's pledge for unity and bipartisanship at his inauguration. While Biden and his economic team met with a handful of GOP senators, it largely didn't go anywhere with both sides digging in on their positions. Democrats and the White House said they remained committed to the overall price tag of $1.9 trillion.
"When our Democrat colleagues speak of 'unity,' they mean keeping their party together, not pulling the country together," said House Budget Committee Ranking Member Jason Smith of Missouri. "That is why we have before us the wrong plan, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons."
But Democrats have sought to counter GOP messaging by noting that their relief bill has bipartisan support among Americans, including Republican voters. Plus, Democrats have said they've learned lessons from over a decade ago when the U.S. was similarly facing a recession and spent time courting and compromising with Republicans to ultimately not win much support on watered-down bills.
Since the pandemic hit the U.S. a year ago, Congress has now passed a half-dozen bills providing trillions of dollars in relief to Americans under two different presidents. Those bills include some of the largest rescue packages in history: the $2.2 trillion CARES Act signed into law by former President Donald Trump last March and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan one year later.
"That's the only thing that's changed," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, referring to past GOP support for coronavirus relief passed during the Trump administration. "The need is there, the virus is still with us, the economy is struggling and now we have a Democratic president, so I expect zero (Republicans) to vote for this."