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March 1, 2021

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Biden scores a win on US$1.9t virus relief plan

US President Joe Biden scored his first legislative win as the House of Representatives passed his US$1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package early on Saturday, although Democrats face challenges to their hopes of using the bill to raise the minimum wage.

Democrats who control the chamber passed the sweeping measure by a mostly party-line vote of 219 to 212 and sent it on to the Senate, where Democrats planned a legislative maneuver to allow them to pass it without the support of Republicans.

The American Rescue Plan would pay for vaccines and medical supplies and send a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments.

The bill’s big-ticket items include US$1,400 direct payments to individuals, a US$400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through August 29, and help for those in difficulty paying rents and mortgages.

In brief remarks on Saturday, Biden said he called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to thank her for her support and urged the Senate to take up the bill quickly. “I hope it will receive quick action. We have no time to waste,” Biden said. “The people of this country have suffered far too much for far too long.”

Democrats said the package was needed to fight a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work.

“The American people need to know that their government is there for them,” Pelosi said in a debate on the House floor.

Republicans, who have broadly backed previous COVID-19 spending, said much of the package was not necessary, highlighting elements such as a subway near Pelosi’s San Francisco district. Only 9 percent of the total would go directly toward fighting the virus, they said.

“It just throws out money without accountability,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said.

The president has focused his first weeks in office on tackling the greatest US public health crisis in a century.

Democrats aim to get the bill to him to sign into law before mid-March, when enhanced unemployment benefits and some other types of aid are due to expire.

The action now moves to the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris may have to cast a tie-breaking vote in a chamber where Republicans control 50 seats and Democrats and their allies control the other 50.

Democrats will have to sort out how to handle a proposed minimum-wage increase, which may have to be stripped from the bill due to the complicated rules that govern the Senate.

The House-passed bill would raise the national hourly minimum wage for the first time since 2009, to US$15 from US$7.25. The increase is a top priority for progressive Democrats.

It is not clear whether the minimum-wage hike would have survived the Senate even if it were to be kept in the bill. At least two Senate Democrats oppose it, along with most Republicans.

Some senators are floating a smaller increase, to the range of US$10 to US$12 per hour, while Democrats are considering a penalty for large corporations that do not voluntarily pay a US$15 wage.


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