US Senate passes $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill

Washington, Mar 6 (efe-epa).- The United States Senate approved on Saturday a $1.9 trillion package aimed at alleviating the economic distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic, marking the first legislative victory for Democratic President Joe Biden since he took office Jan. 20.

Besides another round of direct payments to individual, the package includes extended unemployment benefits, funds for state and local governments and money to expedite vaccination and the re-opening of schools.

While the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives already passed the “American Rescue Plan,” the lower chamber will have to assent to the Senate’s amended version before it can go to Biden for his signature.

With extended unemployment benefits that were part of the $900 billion relief bill signed in December by then-President Donald Trump set to expire March 14, the House leadership said that members will act quickly.

“On Tuesday, the House will consider the Senate’s amended version of the American Rescue Plan, so that we can send this bill to President Biden for his signature early next week,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said.

The vote in the Senate was 50-49 and all of the “no” votes were cast by Republicans. The 50th GOP senator, Dan Sullivan, missed the session to return to Alaska for his father-in-law’s funeral.

Had Sullivan been present on Saturday, the vote would have been 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris would have needed to break the tie in her Constitutional capacity as president of the Senate.

Biden, who spent more than three decades in the Senate before becoming Barack Obama’s vice president in 2009, said from the start that he wanted a bipartisan bill and he met in January with a group of Republican senators to discuss their proposal for a $600 billion bill.

In the end, not a single Republican was willing to back Biden’s initiative.

Some Republicans say that the economy is already recovering and that there is no need for a third relief package, following the December bill and the $2.2-trillion CARES Act, enacted in March 2020.

Yet the world’s largest economy still has more than 9 million fewer jobs than it did before the arrival of Covid-19 in the US, which leads the world in both deaths, 523,000, and cases, 28.9 million.

The Democratic congressional leadership knew that Republican senators would resort to delaying tactics, but they did not expect one of their own members, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to put up a roadblock to passing the bill.

On Friday, Manchin objected to the provision of the American Rescue Act dealing with unemployment benefits.

While the House bill calls for an extra $400 a week through the end of September, Manchin secured a reduction to $300 and a shorter expiration date, Sept. 6 instead of Sept. 30, along with a limit of $10,200 on the amount of unemployment benefit exempt from income tax.

Earlier this week, the White House agreed to a request from Manchin and other centrist Democrats to further limit the number of people eligible for the $1,400 direct payments.

In the amended Senate bill, the income threshold is reduced from $100,000 to $80,000 a year for individuals and from $200,000 to $160,000 a year for couples.

Another key provision in the House bill, a phased-in hike in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.00 an hour, was stripped from the Senate version for procedural reasons.

When Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a stand-alone measure Friday to boost the minimum wage, eight Democrats joined all of the Republicans in voting it down.

If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, it would be more than $22.00 an hour. EFE llb/dr

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