CORONAVIRUS

Congress Sends $1.9 Trillion COVID-19 Relief Bill To Biden’s Desk

The stimulus package will include $1,400 stimulus checks, extend weekly unemployment benefits and increase the child tax credit.

WASHINGTON — House Democrats gave final approval Wednesday to the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, sending the legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk for a pit stop before another round of stimulus checks are sent out to most Americans.

The House voted 220-211 on final passage, with one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) joining all Republicans in opposition to the bill. 

Although Republicans and Democrats were divided along party lines on the legislation, both parties agreed on this much: This round of COVID-19 relief is one of the most progressive packages ever written into law. 

The bill includes $1,400 stimulus checks for most Americans, extends $300 weekly unemployment benefits into September, establishes about $10,000 in tax forgiveness for the jobless, increases the child tax credit to roughly $3,000, includes $350 billion in state and local government aid, another $128 billion in funding for schools, $46 billion for contact tracing and testing, $25 billion for rental assistance, $25 billion to help struggling bars and restaurants, and billions more for vaccines, pandemic supplies and other public health measures.

It’s the first major legislative achievement for new President Joe Biden, and the final package looks remarkably similar to what Biden proposed in January before he was even inaugurated. Despite razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate, Democrats got on board with the president’s proposal, delivering a signature achievement that Biden and Democrats can point to during the midterm elections.

President Joe Biden speaks from the State Dining Room following the passage of the American Rescue Plan in the U.S. Senate at
President Joe Biden speaks from the State Dining Room following the passage of the American Rescue Plan in the U.S. Senate at the White House on March 6.

There were, however, some changes made to appease moderate Senate Democrats who were concerned benefits would go to some higher income families. 

The stimulus payments are cut off entirely for individuals who make more than $80,000 (or $160,000 for joint filers), though the full payments will go to all individuals making up to $75,000 a year (or up to $150,000 for joint filers), as Biden initially proposed.

Democrats also kept federal unemployment insurance aid at its current $300 per week level, instead of expanding it to a $400 weekly benefit as Biden had initially called for. That change came after centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) threatened to vote alongside Republicans to strip out Democrats’ proposal and significantly shrink the benefits last week.

In another last-minute change in the Senate last week, Democrats did, however, decide to forgive taxes on the first $10,200 in unemployment income for Americans with household incomes of less than $150,000. That’s a huge relief for jobless Americans who were suddenly stuck with big surprise tax bills after surviving on state and federal benefits for the last year. 

The package will also greatly benefit parents. Democrats have not only expanded the child tax credit, but also directed the Internal Revenue Service to pay out the benefit in advance in “periodic payments,” instead of an end-of-year tax refund.

That means many American families will be receiving regular payments throughout the year amounting up to $3,600 per child under the age of six, and up to $3,000 per child between six and 17 years of age. The expanded benefit is limited to families with incomes up to $150,000. A smaller benefit ― $2,000 per child per year ― is still available for families making up to $400,000 a year, however.

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during a news conference with House Democrats regarding the upcoming v
US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during a news conference with House Democrats regarding the upcoming vote on the COVID-19 relief package on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 9, 2021.

The expanded tax credit is only for 2021, but Biden has already expressed interest in making the change permanent. Some estimates say the child tax credits could lift more than 4 million children above the poverty line ― cutting child poverty in the United States by 40%. 

But Republicans castigated the legislation Wednesday as a liberal wish list that made no attempts at bipartisanship.

“You won the majority, you took the opportunity to put forth an agenda, and you didn’t include bipartisan support,” Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) said Wednesday.

“Republicans have been completely frozen out of this process,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) said.

“Why are Democrats who control Congress, control the White House, abandoning bipartisanship to jam through this partisan legislation without a single Republican vote?” Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) asked. “I’ll tell you why. It’s because this is not COVID relief. It’s a $2 trillion blue state boondoggle.”

But Democrats countered that the relief was necessary, and they argued that the legislation not being bipartisan was more an indictment of Republicans than Democrats.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) noted that Congress had already passed five COVID-19 relief bills on a bipartisan basis ― and the only thing that had changed was that the country now has a Democratic president instead of a Republican one.

“The need is there. The virus is still with us. The economy is struggling. And now we have a Democratic president. So I expect zero of you to vote for this,” Hoyer said.

While Democrats touted the legislation themselves as a progressive win, there was, however, one wish list item not included in the final passage: a $15 minimum wage. 

Those provisions, which passed the House two weeks ago in the initial version of the bill, were stripped from the package in the Senate after the Parliamentarian ruled that Democrats couldn’t do those policies by reconciliation. Senate Democrats lacked the votes to even do a $15 minimum wage, let alone overrule the Parliamentarian. 

Democrats passed the bill through the special reconciliation process, which allowed them to bypass normal Senate voting thresholds and advance the legislation without a single Republican vote — but it also meant their bill had to be tailored to certain budgetary provisions.

Ultimately, that set up Democrats to go big on this round of COVID-19 relief, fearing that it may be the last, and learning from the lessons of the early days of Obama administration, when Republicans were able to constrain stimulus spending.

While Democrats didn’t get a single GOP vote for their $1.9 trillion relief package, that doesn’t quite mean the bill doesn’t have bipartisan support.

Seventy-five percent of Americans support the package, according to a recent poll, with 59% support among Republicans.