Jobless Aid, Direct Checks Could Get Trimmed as Senate Takes Up COVID-19 Aid Bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) —
A U.S. flag flying at half-staff to remember the more than 500,000 people dead from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is seen in the distance outside the Hart Senate Office Building near the Capitol in Washington, Monday. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The Senate is expected to take up President Joe Biden‘s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Wednesday, with fellow Democrats seeking to advance key priorities and jettison aspects that have drawn unflattering scrutiny.

The bill would pay for vaccines and medical supplies, boost jobless assistance and send a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments. Democrats aim to get it to Biden to sign into law before March 14, when some current benefits expire.

With Republican cooperation unlikely, Democrats who narrowly control the chamber need to stick together to pass Biden‘s top legislative priority.

That will require them to sort out a welter of competing ideas as they seek to advance the bill, which passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives last Saturday. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed 515,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work.

First to go will be a minimum-wage increase, which the Senate parliamentarian said last week could not be included in the package if Democrats want to invoke a special procedure that would allow them to pass the bill with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes needed to advance most legislation in the 100-seat chamber.

Democrats and their allies currently control 50 seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving them a tie-breaking vote if needed.

Also on the chopping block: $1.5 million for a bridge connecting Canada and New York State, which Republicans have derided as an example of special-interest spending they say has no place in the bill. Aides to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who represents New York, say funding was requested by the administration of Republican former President Donald Trump.

It is not clear whether Democrats will keep another project that has drawn Republican ire – funding for a subway expansion in California’s Silicon Valley, near the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Democrats have shown no interest in dropping another partisan sticking point – $350 billion in aid for state and local governments, which face rising costs and uncertain tax revenues because of the pandemic.

A Reuters analysis found that Democratic-leaning states would get a larger share of that money this time around than they did under the first $150 billion of state and local aid that Congress approved last year.

Other areas could get whittled back. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, a key centrist, is pushing to scale back enhanced unemployment benefits to $300 per week from $400. Lawmakers may also opt to discontinue those benefits if unemployment in a given state drops below a certain level, according to a Democratic aide.

Democrats also may tighten income qualifications for $1,400 direct payments, so they are more targeted toward lower-income households, an aide said.

Others hope to carve out room for priorities of their own. Senator Angus King, an independent aligned with Democrats, has been pushing for billions of dollars to expand high-speed internet service in rural areas.

The Senate could vote on the bill by the end of the week. The House would then have to sign off on the changes before Congress could send it on to Biden to sign into law.

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