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Democrats prepare for battle in push to pass Covid relief within weeks

The legislation could pass the House as early as next week — before a contentious Senate fight. Party leaders want it signed into law by mid-March.
Image: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden at a CNN town hall event Tuesday at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee.Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — While the eyes of the nation were on an impeachment trial, Democratic-led committees were quietly advancing President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, hoping to deliver a bill to his desk by their self-imposed mid-March deadline.

Democrats approved pieces of the bill in late-night sessions last week, ignoring widespread opposition from Republicans. Party leaders are eyeing House passage by the end of next week, aides said.

The legislation would then head to the Senate, where it can bypass committees, end run the 60-vote threshold and quickly be considered on the floor under the budget reconciliation process.

But that's when things could get messy. Democrats will need to keep all 50 of their senators on board as they're unlikely to get bipartisan support.

Democrats will have to fend off a barrage of Republican amendments aimed at chipping away at the bill and forcing their members to take tough votes.

"This is going to be a little nasty," said Bill Hoagland, a former Senate GOP budget aide who now works for the Bipartisan Policy Center.

He called the unlimited amendment process for the economic relief bill "extremely meaningful" because it could substantively change or narrow provisions in the package.

Still, Hoagland said it has "a good chance" of becoming law at the level Biden wants.

"There will be changes made," he said. "But I think they're going to use the whole $1.9 trillion."

Progressives say it will be a major victory after a decade of laws designed to hold down investments in domestic and safety-net programs that help ordinary Americans.

"In just one fell swoop, with this Covid relief bill, we can repair a lot of damage that has been done, and begin putting our nation on the right track in terms of wages, health care, leave policies, schooling, housing, and so on," said Faiz Shakir, a political adviser to the Senate Budget chair, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

The sweeping legislation includes cash payments of up to $1,400 for Americans making five-figure incomes, $400-a-week in federal jobless benefits, a per-child annual allowance of $3,000 or more, expanded health care subsidies, and extra money for states, schools and vaccine distribution.

"Now is the time we should be spending. Now is the time to go big," Biden said at a CNN town hall Tuesday night, predicting that the package would create millions of new jobs.

An analysis Wednesday by the progressive-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the emerging bill would "provide needed help to tens of millions of people, reduce high levels of hardship, help school districts address student learning loss, and bolster the economy."

Republicans are aiming to increase the political pressure on Democrats through amendment votes, but will have their own political difficulties. Polls have found the individual policies in the bill to be popular.

A recent Quinnipiac poll found 68 percent of Americans support the $1.9 trillion relief bill. None of the GOP senators are likely to vote for the bill, with even the most moderate balking at its size.

A brewing fight over the minimum wage

The biggest intra-party fight is likely to be over the minimum wage.

Democratic leaders may find themselves in a tough spot trying to balance the demands of centrist senators, who are uncomfortable with provisions like a $15-wage floor, and the House's progressive caucus, which is determined to include a hike.

The House is on track to approve the bill with a wage hike that goes from $7.25 to $15-per-hour over four years.

But it may run into a procedural hurdle in the Senate, where Sanders and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are trying to persuade the parliamentarian — the in-house referee for the rules — that it complies.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., told Politico that a wage hike is doesn't belong in the Covid-19 relief bill. And Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said it shouldn't go as high as $15, instead floating $11-an-hour.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he's working with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., on an alternate minimum wage bill tied to a mechanism for "ensuring businesses cannot hire illegal immigrants."

Republicans are also zeroing in on schools as a political target, sensing an opportunity to blame Democrats for slow reopenings in a bid to win back suburban parents who fled the party under Trump.

"By falsely claiming that schools need more federal money to reopen, Senate Democrats are making this a federal issue," said Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the Senate GOP campaign arm. "The CDC says that schools can reopen right now. Senate Democrats need to explain to parents and students across the country why they’re refusing to follow the science and, instead, cowering to the teachers unions."