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Senate could take up Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill by midweek

Activists appealed for a $15 minimum wage near the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 25.
Activists appealed for a $15 minimum wage near the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 25.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Days after House Democrats passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic stimulus plan without a single Republican vote, Senate Democrats say they are speeding ahead to do the same.

The Senate could take up the sweeping pandemic aid measure — which includes $1,400 checks for many Americans and billions of dollars for unemployment benefits and small businesses — as early as midweek, according to a senior Democratic aide.

Democrats could introduce the updated legislation in the Senate as early as Wednesday and move to proceed to a vote, sparking 20 hours of debate followed by a typically lengthy process in which Republicans will try to amend the bill and force politically difficult votes.

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As Democrats rush to deliver the bill to Biden’s desk before emergency unemployment benefits expire in two weeks, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. and a close ally of the president’s, acknowledged the lack of Republican support.

“Frankly, we’re moving ahead with a bill that probably will get no Republican votes in the Senate but will have broad Republican support in the country,” Coons said Sunday on CNN.

More than 7 in 10 Americans back Biden’s aid package, according to polling from online research firm SurveyMonkey for The New York Times.

Early Saturday, the House passed the bill 219-212. But one of its provisions, an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, is in peril in the Senate, where the chamber’s top rules enforcer has said that it will need to be removed.

Democrats are debating internally how to respond. The $15 wage is a top priority of progressives but lacks the votes to pass in an evenly split Senate since two centrist Democrats — Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — are opposed. The caucus must work out its differences quickly, because the bill is needed to extend emergency unemployment insurance programs that expire in mid-March.

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Top Democrats over the weekend decided against including an amendment that would penalize corporations that pay workers less than $15 an hour, a move that could have imposed an escalating tax on the payrolls of large corporations, according to a person familiar with the discussion, who disclosed details on the condition of anonymity. The decision was reported earlier by The Washington Post.

It is unclear what other avenues remain for the current legislation, although Democratic leaders in both chambers have vowed to pursue codifying the $15 wage even if it means waiting until after the stimulus bill has passed.

Democrats are still waiting on the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, to offer guidance on whether a few other provisions, including pension funding and health care subsidies that allow laid-off workers to remain on their former employer’s health plan for some time, violate Senate rules. Republicans could also challenge certain provisions within the plan as extraneous or failing to have a substantial direct effect on the federal budget.

Republicans say they have grown frustrated by a lack of inclusion in the negotiations.

Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, one of 10 Republicans who met with Biden in January to offer an alternative $600 billion plan, said Republicans “have not been involved” in the talks for weeks.

“I listened to press secretary Jen Psaki speaking about how we have been listened to,” Cassidy said on CNN. “That is such a joke.”

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