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US House on cusp of passing $1.9 tn Covid plan but wage hike falters

·4-min read

House Democrats were poised late Friday to pass US President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid relief package by a narrow margin despite a Senate ruling that the final version will not include a minimum wage hike.

Biden had campaigned extensively on raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, from a rate of $7.25 that has stood since 2009.

He aimed to include it in the huge Covid rescue plan which allots billions of dollars to boost vaccine delivery, help schools re-open and fund state and local governments.

The bill -- on track to be the second largest US stimulus ever after the $2 trillion package Donald Trump signed last March to fight the pandemic's devastating spread -- also extends unemployment benefits, set to expire mid-March.

But the minimum wage portion of the latest effort ran aground when the Senate parliamentarian ruled Thursday that it can not be included in the sprawling aid plan as written under certain rules.

Despite the setback House Democrats pressed on with a vote and expressed confidence it would pass, keeping the minimum wage provision in even as it will be dead on arrival in the upper chamber.

"We're going to make a giant step forward tonight," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told reporters, saying the hundreds of billions of dollars in direct checks "is going to be a boon for families" suffering during the pandemic.

A House vote was expected just after midnight (0500 GMT), in the early hours Saturday.

Pelosi can ill afford defections. She leads the slimmest House majority -- 221 Democrats to 211 Republicans -- in decades in her chamber.

And she stressed that, should the Senate remove the provision as expected, Democrats will return to the issue at a later date.

"We will not rest until we pass the $15 minimum wage," Pelosi said.

- 'Move quickly' -

The rules of so-called reconciliation relate to budgetary bills that are allowed to bypass Republican filibuster efforts in the Senate and pass with just a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than the typical 60.

The parliamentarian concluded that the wage hike does not meet the standard, and since there is no Republican support for the bill in the evenly split Senate, the measure will need to go in order for Covid relief to pass.

The ruling affects only the Senate. But because any bill must pass both chambers before the president signs it into law, parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough's decision effectively strips the wage hike out of the package.

Progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders cried foul, insisting that the "archaic and undemocratic" rules prevent Congress from passing much-needed legislation sought by a majority of Americans.

Biden however made clear that he respects the decision and would work with lawmakers to get pandemic relief over the finish line.

The president "urges Congress to move quickly to pass the American Rescue Plan, which includes $1400 rescue checks for most Americans, funding to get this virus under control, (and) aid to get our schools reopened," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

- 'Not stop fighting' -

The message to Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, is clear: time is running out to revive a US economy hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Republicans have complained that a large majority of funding does not directly contribute to fighting the coronavirus pandemic or expanding vaccinations, and that Democrats are using a pandemic to push forward a liberal wish list.

Congresswoman Debbie Lesko blasted it as a "$2 trillion boondoggle" during debate Friday.

"Union pensions, blue-state bailouts, Planned Parenthood, even a bridge and a tunnel: that is what most of this bill is about -- not Covid-19 relief," she fumed.

But the White House budget office said the measure provides "critical" tools for tackling health crises and, like Biden, urged its swift passage.

After clearing the House, the bill would be sent next week to the Senate, where the wage language would be removed.

Passage there is not guaranteed. With the chamber split and no Republicans expressing support, every Democrat would have to vote in favor, with Vice President Kamala Harris likely needed to break a 50-50 tie.

The House and Senate texts would then need to be reconciled into a single bill and passed again before getting Biden's signature.

Progressives like Sanders meanwhile were studying ways to raise wages, including introducing an amendment to the Covid package that would create tax penalties for major corporations which pay employees less than $15 an hour.