Democrats plan initial steps on Biden COVID-19 relief for next week

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a news conference in the U.S. Capitol
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a news conference in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2021.

By Richard Cowan and Makini Brice, Reuters

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives will begin moving forward next week on President Joe Biden’s plan to deliver a fresh infusion of COVID-19 relief to Americans and businesses reeling from the pandemic, top Democrats said on Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said his narrowly divided chamber would begin work on a “robust” coronavirus package as early as next week, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicted that Congress would complete a key preliminary step before the end of next week.

Biden has made ramping up the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 430,000 people in the United States and thrown millions out of work, a major focus of his early days in office. But Republicans and some Democrats have balked at the $1.9 trillion cost of his proposal, which is on top of $4 trillion in aid approved by Congress last year.

“The Senate, as early as next week, will begin the process of considering a very strong COVID relief bill,” Schumer said on the floor of the chamber.

“We need recovery and rescue quickly. Everywhere you look alarm bells are ringing,” he added, saying Democrats would proceed even if Republicans are not on board.

Schumer did not offer any hard details about the bill that he intends to advance.

Pelosi told a news conference that the House would vote on a budget resolution required for a parliamentary procedure called reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to pass much of Biden’s proposal by a simple majority in the Senate, without Republican support. Vice President Kamala Harris wields the 50-50 Senate’s tie-breaking vote.

“By the end of (next) week, we’ll be finished with the budget resolution, which will be about reconciliation, if needed,” Pelosi said.

Democrats say they hope to find enough Republican support to meet the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for passage. But they are getting ready to use reconciliation in case bipartisanship falls short.

Senate misgivings over the size of Biden’s proposal have stirred speculation that the White House could use a two-pronged strategy, starting with a bill small enough to attract Republican support that would then be followed by a larger reconciliation bill.

Politico reported that the administration was considering a bill to provide $600 billion to $800 billion in aid, including scaled-back funding for vaccine distribution, unemployment and food assistance as well as relief checks targeted for those in need.

But senior White House officials moved quickly on Thursday to shoot down the idea of a split approach.

“The needs of the American people aren’t partial; we can’t do this piecemeal,” White House economic adviser Brian Deese, who has been involved in talks with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Senate and House, said on Twitter.

In a sign of the pressure Biden will come under from less moderate Democrats, a group of Democratic lawmakers in the House are pushing for recurring payments to households during the pandemic, instead of the one-time $1,400 check the Biden administration has included in its proposal.

“As we look at the coming year, another one-time round of checks would provide a temporary lifeline, but when that money runs out, families will once again struggle to pay for basic necessities. One more check is not enough during this public health and economic crisis,” the lawmakers, led by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, wrote in a letter to be sent to Biden and Harris on Thursday.

They did not specify how large the checks should be, but Omar favors a $2,000 recurring payment, her office said.

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