WASHINGTON—The U.S. House on a nearly party-line vote passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package early Saturday, in a rush to both boost COVID-19 vaccine funding and get legislation to the president’s desk before unemployment benefits expire in mid-March.
The package, dubbed the American Rescue Plan, passed 219-212. It includes a gradual increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, despite a ruling on Thursday by the Senate parliamentarian that the wage hike does not comply with Senate budget rules. Whether the pay increase survives in the Senate is yet to be seen.
Two House Democrats voted against the bill — Reps. Jared Golden of Maine and Kurt Schrader of Oregon. Every Republican opposed it.
“We need to pass this bill prior to March 14 so that some millions of people are not falling through the cracks,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said at a press conference. “Today’s vote is a crucial step in our fight to defeat COVID-19 and build our economy back better.”
The Biden administration on Friday underlined its support for the massive measure, which includes $350 billion in direct aid to state and local governments.
“The bill would allow the Administration to execute its plan to change the course of the COVID- 19 pandemic,” the administration said in a statement. “And it would provide Americans and their communities an economic bridge through the crisis.”
The bill would provide direct checks of $1,400 to Americans in certain income brackets, extend unemployment benefits and food programs and continue pauses on rental evictions.
Since the pandemic, more than 8 million people have slipped into poverty, according to a study by Columbia University. While employment has slowly started to climb, there are still more than 10 million people unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
More than half-a-million Americans have died of coronavirus with 28 million positive cases.
On the House floor, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., objected to the bill, arguing that $350 billion should not go toward state and local government to “bail out failed states.” Louisiana is set to receive $5 billion overall.
“We should be here tonight focused on real priorities,” he said, arguing for more of the funding to go toward reopening schools and vaccine distribution.
The bill provides $7.5 billion for vaccine distribution, rollout and planning, along with $1 billion set aside for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to carry out activities to “strengthen vaccine confidence.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that the president was disappointed that the parliamentarian ruled that the proposed increase to the minimum wage could not be included in the relief package.
The measure is being considered under a process known as budget reconciliation, which allows for floor passage with a simple majority — crucial for Democrats who control a Senate split 50-50 with tie-breaking votes cast by Vice President Kamala Harris.
“He will work with leaders in Congress to determine the best path forward because no one in this country should work full time and live in poverty,” Psaki said.
Ahead of the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that Democrats would still include the federal minimum wage increase in their relief package because they believe it’s necessary.
“We are sending it as a symbol of a difference it will make in the lives of the American people,” she said. “If it doesn’t prevail because of Senate rules we will persist.”
Senate Democrats are already looking to work around the parliamentarian’s decision by imposing a 5% tax penalty on a “big corporation’s total payroll if any workers earn less than a certain amount,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement.
“It also would include safeguards to prevent companies from trying to outsource labor to avoid paying living wages,” he said.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, also said he plans legislation that would require billion-dollar companies to pay their employees a minimum wage of $15.
Child tax credit, school mental health
The sprawling House bill provides a temporary extension of the Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to as much as $3,600 for the youngest children over the next year.
To help educators and school staff deal with the mental health of students, the bill allocates $80 million to address burnout, suicide and mental and behavioral problems.
Additionally, the bill would put $20 million toward a public health campaign aimed at encouraging health care workers to seek support and treatment for their own mental health.
States and local governments would be in line for the following funding under the House version of the bill, according to the House Oversight and Reform Committee
Minnesota state government would receive $2.5 billion; metro cities, $595 million; counties, $1.1 billion; other jurisdictions, $420 million.
Tribal governments nationwide would receive $20 billion.
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