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Senate Democrats limit eligibility for stimulus checks in $1.9 trillion COVID bill

Senate bill narrows eligibility for relief checks
Senate bill narrows income eligibility for relief checks 01:16

Washington — President Biden and moderate Senate Democrats have struck a deal to limit eligibility for direct stimulus checks to Americans, lowering the income level for those who would qualify for payments, according to a Democratic source. 

The Senate is set to take up Mr. Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill as early as Wednesday. Since the bill is not expected to attract any Republican votes, all Democrats will need to support the bill in order for it to pass, giving moderate Democrats leverage to make demands of the president and Senate leadership.

Under the agreement, the $1,400 direct payments to taxpayers will begin to phase out at $75,000 for individuals, with no one making more than $80,000 eligible for payments. For couples who file jointly, the phase-out will begin for those making $150,000 and end at $160,000. 

The shift decreases the number of Americans who would have been eligible for payments under the version of the bill passed by the House on Saturday. The House bill also phased out payments for individuals making more than $75,000 and couples making more than $150,000, but payments were capped at incomes of $100,000 and $200,000, respectively.

The proposal to lower caps on the stimulus checks would cut an estimated 17 million people from eligibility, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Their analysis found 297 million adults and children would benefit under the bill passed in the House, but only 280 million people would in the Senate version of the bill. Under both bills, everyone in the bottom 60% of Americans would benefit.  

During the White House press briefing on Wednesday, press secretary Jen Psaki said the president is pleased with the progress being made on the American Rescue Plan, stating that President Biden has been firm on the checks being $1,400 but that he's been open from the beginning for those to be more targeted with the cutoffs.

"He is comfortable with where the negotiations stand," said Psaki. "Of course, there are going to be ongoing discussions."

The Senate bill also includes $400 per week in supplemental unemployment insurance benefits, which are set to expire on March 14. Those benefits would extend until mid-August. Senator Joe Manchin, who has quickly become one of the most influential lawmakers in the Senate, had suggested that the benefits be lowered to $300 per week.

The deal comes after Mr. Biden talked to Senate Democrats on Tuesday and stressed the urgency to pass the COVID relief package. Mr. Biden also met with moderate Senate Democrats at the White House on Monday to discuss the legislation. Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana, who attended the Monday meeting, told reporters that the discussion was about "targeting the dollars" in the relief package but not reducing it.

Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan told reporters that the new phase-out of stimulus checks is a "reasonable compromise."

"I know in our caucus, that there's been tremendous goodwill, working through all of these things right and just honest differences of opinion," Stabenow added. "I think we're really in a good spot and, frankly, and the most important thing is to get this done."

Democratic Senator Michael Bennet agreed that he believed the deal was an "appropriate way of bringing this to a successful conclusion." But Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell expressed skepticism, saying that she thought "the package as it was originally crafted is good to go."

House Democrats appeared divided on the deal. Congressman Mark Pocan, the former chair of the Progressive Caucus, told reporters that the phase out was a "silly and stupid" move meant to appease "the one or two people who can hold things up." But House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal said that he was "open to changes in the phase out."

"If you had to pick out or single out one item that more than anything else in the CARES Act saved the American economy, it was the unemployment insurance. So the fact that they have not touched the unemployment insurance with a supplement, I think is a good thing," Neal said, referring to the coronavirus relief bill passed last spring.

Democrats are passing the bill through budget reconciliation, a process which allows for limited debate time and for legislation to pass with a simple majority. There will be 20 hours of debate on the package in the Senate, followed by a "vote-a-rama" in which senators vote on a series of proposed amendments in quick succession. Amendments require simple majority support in order to be added to the bill.

Most amendments are expected to be offered by Republicans seeking to make the process politically painful for Democrats, but Senator Bernie Sanders has said he will introduce an amendment to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Although the bill is largely expected to pass along party lines, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski indicated to reporters on Wednesday that she hadn't made a decision yet on how she would vote. Although she said she "can't stand" that the bill is not entirely focused on the coronavirus, she called herself "Listening Lisa" because she would be listening to what the final proposal would be.

The stimulus check is one of the most popular provisions of the bill, known as the American Rescue Plan. According to a poll by Monmouth University released Wednesday, 68% say of Americans say that the checks should remain at $1,400 even if it means the bill passes with just single-party support. Increasing additional unemployment benefits from $300 to $400 per week is also popular, with support from 67% of Americans.

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