This would begin a multi-day process in an effort to get the stimulus legislation passed through the Senate in the next two weeks where Democrats face strong Republican opposition.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Monday morning that after the Senate confirmed three more cabinet positions for the Biden administration, debate would begin on passing the American Rescue Act.
“I expect a hearty debate and some late nights but the American people sent us here with a job to do: to help the country through this moment of extraordinary challenge. To end, through action, the greatest health crisis this country has faced in half a century, and that’s just what we’re going to do,” said Schumer.
The House of Representatives narrowly approved the bill to fight the pandemic and boost the economy early Saturday. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed on a party-line vote of 219 to 212, with two Democrats, Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, voting against the bill.
It now moves to a 50-50 Senate, where Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote. It would require all Democrats staying united behind the first major bill to come through Congress in the Biden administration.
The measure features a new round of emergency financial aid to households that includes $1,400 stimulus checks and an expanded child tax credit, as well as aid to small businesses and state and local governments.
Most Republicans in Congress view the plan as too expensive, and many oppose that it includes proposals such as transportation projects that have nothing to do with relief for COVID-19.
“At about 2 o’clock on Saturday morning House Democrats rammed through the bonanza of partisan spending they’re calling a pandemic rescue package,” said Minority Leader McConnell on the Senate floor Monday morning.
He added that last year the Senate passed multiple coronavirus aid packages with bipartisan support which he says were much more targeted at COVID-19 relief.
Senators are expected to start proposing amendments this week, and it appears unlikely there will be any minimum wage increase included that progressive Democrats are passionate about.
The House-passed COVID-19 aid bill would raise the national hourly minimum wage for the first time since 2009, to $15 from $7.25. But the Senate parliamentarian ruled last week that the measure could not be allowed under the Senate’s “reconciliation” rules that govern the massive bill.
The special rules allow the legislation to advance in the Senate with a simple majority of the 100 senators, instead of the 60 needed for most legislation.
Republicans oppose the $15 minimum wage target as an expense that would hurt businesses and cost jobs.
A provision that would penalize large companies that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour was floated as a possible alternative along with a proposal to boost taxes on corporations that don’t hit certain minimum wage targets.
Both of those proposals are no longer being considered according to three Senate aides, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press to describe internal discussions.
Some moderate Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin, favor a smaller increase in the minimum wage, to about $11 an hour.
The White House did not embrace the tax proposals, and some House Democrats reacted coolly to the plan, which would have affected only a fraction of workers paid the minimum wage.
The tepid Democratic reaction to the tax plan leaves the party looking at potentially pushing a minimum wage increase in future legislation, where it could well face enough GOP opposition to kill it.
Both chambers must pass the same version of the bill before sending it to Biden for signing into law. Democrats are pushing for this to happen by March 14, when unemployment benefits for millions of Americans are set to expire.
The legislation would pay for vaccines and send a new round of aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments. The big-ticket items include $1,400 direct payments to individuals, a $400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through Aug. 29, and help for those in difficulty paying rents and home mortgages during the pandemic.
Senate Democrats may reshape the $350 billion the bill provides for state and local governments. They also might extend its fresh round of emergency unemployment benefits, which would be $400 weekly, through September instead of August, as the House approved.
In addition, the parliamentarian’s interpretation of Senate rules could force other changes as well. These might include dropping or altering provisions in the House bill providing billions of dollars to help some struggling pension plans and to help people who’ve lost jobs afford health insurance.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Reporting by Reuters’ Susan Cornwell and AP’s Steve Peoples and Alan Fram.