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House approves $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, sending bill to Biden

House passes $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan
House passes $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan 03:30

Washington — The House approved the final version of President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill on Wednesday, handing the new president a significant legislative victory as he works to stabilize an economy still struggling to rebound from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill, known as the American Rescue Plan Act, passed by a vote of 220 to 211. One Democrat — Representative Jared Golden of Maine — joined all Republicans in voting against the measure. Golden had previously voted against the House version of the bill which passed last week. The legislation will soon head to Mr. Biden's desk, where he will sign it on Friday, the White House said. The Senate approved the bill along party lines following a marathon voting session on Saturday.

Just 49 days into his presidency, Mr. Biden has secured what could prove to be the defining domestic policy accomplishment of his presidency, injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy and bolstering his administration's efforts to accelerate vaccinations, reopen schools and get jobless Americans back to work. The president, Vice President Kamala Harris and first lady Dr. Jill Biden plan to travel to promote the package once it clears Congress and is signed into law Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

Mr. Biden celebrated the passage of his plan in the wake of the House's vote and lauded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her "the finest and most capable speaker in the history of our nation" as she shepherded the package through Congress and maintained unity among House Democrats.

"This legislation is about giving the backbone of this nation – the essential workers, the working people who built this country, the people who keep this country going – a fighting chance," the president said.

U.S. House of Representatives votes on coronavirus disease (COVID-19) relief bill on Capitol Hill in Washington
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wields her gavel ahead of the final passage of President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on March 10, 2021. JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS

Democratic members of the House and Senate gathered after the bill's passage for an enrollment ceremony, during which Democratic leaders signed the legislation in the final step before it heads to the White House for Mr. Biden's signature.

"This is a momentous day in the history of our country because we have passed historic, consequential and transformative legislation," Pelosi said in remarks, noting that for many Democrats "this is the most consequential legislation that many of us will ever be a party to."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats have followed through on their promise to provide the American people with relief if Georgia voters elected a pair of Democrats to the upper chamber, securing a 50-50 split, with Harris casting tie-breaking votes.

"What do we say to America?" he said. "We say to America, 'Help is on the way.'"

The bill's swift passage is reminiscent of former President Barack Obama's successful push for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act soon after taking office in 2009 to address the Great Recession. But that bill cost less than half of the American Rescue Plan, and Mr. Biden, who was vice president at the time, appears to have concluded that going bigger is better, even if it means sacrificing some bipartisan support.

The American Rescue Plan provides $1,400 direct payments to individuals making up to $75,000 annually, $350 billion in aid to state and local governments and $14 billion for vaccine distribution. The bill also provides $130 billion to elementary, middle and high schools to assist with safe reopening.

It includes an additional $300 billion in weekly jobless benefits through September and an expanded tax credit of up to $3,600 per child, initially distributed in monthly installments. The child tax credit could raise 4 million children out of poverty, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

More than $50 billion will be distributed to small businesses, including $7 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program. The bill also provides $25 billion for relief for small and mid-sized restaurants, which have suffered significantly during the pandemic.

The measure expands eligibility for subsidies to purchase health insurance to people of all incomes under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a provision that was particularly controversial for Republicans who oppose the bill. It also incentivizes states to expand Medicaid under the ACA by having the federal government pay for new recipients. Several million people could save hundreds of dollars in health care costs once the bill becomes law.

Psaki told reporters on Tuesday that many Americans will start receiving their stimulus checks by the end of the month, and they will not bear Mr. Biden's signature. Former President Donald Trump had his name printed on relief checks under earlier rounds of aid.

Democrats have heralded the economic relief package as one that provides a desperately needed lifeline to families hit hardest by the pandemic. But Republicans in both chambers have criticized the measure for its $1.9 trillion price tag and scope, as well as Democrats' decision to push the plan through Congress without GOP support.

A version of the president's relief plan passed the House last week, but the Senate amended the package and approved it in a 50-49 party-line vote. The lower chamber voted Wednesday on the Senate-amended measure.

Changes in the Senate-amended measure include lowering an unemployment insurance benefit from $400 per week to $300 per week, but extending it through September 6 instead of ending the additional aid in August. It also made the first $10,200 in unemployment benefits non-taxable for households making under $150,000.

The bill amended by the Senate also limited the eligibility for the direct checks. These compromises were negotiated to satisfy moderate Democrats in the Senate, particularly Senator Joe Manchin. As Democrats have a 50-seat majority in the Senate, they require support from all 50 Democrats to pass any controversial legislation, meaning that members like Manchin need to be appeased in order for bills to be approved.

Lawmakers used a process known as budget reconciliation to usher the relief plan through both chambers, which allowed it to pass the Senate with just a simple majority and without relying on Republican support. But the package had to comply with certain rules governing the reconciliation process, which led to a $15 minimum wage hike being stripped from the original proposal that had passed in the House.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, introduced an amendment to the final bill raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, but it failed in a 42-58 vote.

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