The House approved a US$1.9 trillion (NZ$2.6 trillion) pandemic relief bill early Saturday in a win for President Joe Biden, even as top Democrats tried assuring agitated progressives that they'd revive their derailed drive to boost the minimum wage.
The new president's vision for flushing cash to individuals, businesses, states and cities battered by Covid-19 passed on a near party-line 219-212 vote. That ships the massive measure to the Senate, where Democrats seem bent on resuscitating their minimum wage push and fights could erupt over state aid and other issues.
Democrats said the still-faltering economy and the half-million American lives lost demanded quick, decisive action. GOP lawmakers, they said, were out of step with a public that polling shows largely views the bill favourably.
"I am a happy camper tonight," Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, said. "This is what America needs. Republicans, you ought to be a part of this. But if you're not, we're going without you."
Republicans said the bill was too expensive and said too few education dollars would be spent quickly to immediately reopen schools. They said it was laden with gifts to Democratic constituencies like labour unions and funnelled money to Democratic-run states they suggested didn't need it because their budgets had bounced back.
"To my colleagues who say this bill is bold, I say it's bloated," said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California.
"To those who say it's urgent, I say it's unfocused. To those who say it's popular, I say it is entirely partisan."
That divide is making the fight a showdown over which party voters will reward for heaping more federal spending to combat the coronavirus and revive the economy atop the US$4t (NZ$5.5t) approved last year.
The battle is also emerging as an early test of Biden's ability to hold together his party's fragile congressional majorities — just 10 votes in the House and an evenly divided 50-50 Senate.
At the same time, Democrats were trying to figure out how to assuage progressives who lost their top priority in a jarring Senate setback Thursday.
That chamber's nonpartisan parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, said Senate rules require that a federal minimum wage increase would have to be dropped from the Covid-19 bill, leaving the proposal on life support. The measure would gradually lift that minimum to US$15 (NZ$20.74) hourly by 2025, doubling the current US$7.25 (NZ$10) floor in effect since 2009.
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Hoping to revive the effort in some form, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, is considering adding a provision to the Senate version of the Covid-19 relief bill that would penalise large companies that don't pay workers at least US$15 (NZ$20.74) an hour, said a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
That was in line with ideas floated Thursday night by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, a chief sponsor of the US$15 (NZ$20.74) plan, and Senate Finance Committee chairman Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, to boost taxes on corporations that don't hit certain minimum wage targets.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, offered encouragement, too, calling a minimum wage increase "a financial necessity for our families, a great stimulus for our economy and a moral imperative for our country". She said the House would "absolutely" approve a final version of the relief bill because of its widespread benefits, even if it lacked progressives' treasured goal.
While Democratic leaders were eager to signal to rank-and-file progressives and liberal voters that they would not yield on the minimum wage fight, their pathway was unclear because of GOP opposition and questions over whether they had enough Democratic support.
House Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, sidestepped a question on taxing companies that don't boost pay, saying of Senate Democrats, "I hesitate to say anything until they decide on a strategy."
Progressives were demanding that the Senate press ahead anyway on the minimum wage increase, even if it meant changing that chamber's rules and eliminating the filibuster, a tactic that requires 60 votes for a bill to move forward.
"We're going to have to reform the filibuster because we have to be able to deliver," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, a progressive leader.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, another high-profile progressive, also said Senate rules must be changed, telling reporters that when Democrats meet with their constituents, "We can't tell them that this didn't get done because of an unelected parliamentarian."
Traditionalists of both parties — including Biden, who served as a senator for 36 years — have opposed eliminating filibusters because they protect parties' interests when they are in the Senate minority. Biden said weeks ago that he didn't expect the minimum wage increase to survive the Senate's rules.
Pelosi, too, seemed to shy away from dismantling Senate procedures, saying, "We will seek a solution consistent with Senate rules, and we will do so soon."
The House Covid-19 bill includes the minimum wage increase, so the real battle over its fate will occur when the Senate debates its version over the next two weeks.
The overall relief bill would provide US$1400 (NZ$1935) payments to individuals, extend emergency unemployment benefits through August and increase tax credits for children and federal subsidies for health insurance.
It also provides billions for schools and colleges, state and local governments, Covid-19 vaccines and testing, renters, food producers and struggling industries like airlines, restaurants, bars and concert venues.
Democrats are pushing the relief measure through Congress under special rules that will let them avoid a Senate GOP filibuster, meaning that if they are united they won't need any Republican votes.
It also lets the bill move faster, a top priority for Democrats who want the bill on Biden's desk before the most recent emergency jobless benefits end on March 14.
But those same Senate rules prohibit provisions with only an "incidental" impact on the federal budget because they are chiefly driven by other policy purposes. MacDonough decided that the minimum wage provision failed that test.
Republicans oppose the US$15 (NZ$20.74) minimum wage target as an expense that would hurt businesses and cost jobs.