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US Senate passes $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package with Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote

HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/USA-CONGRESS The view of the Nations Capitol in Washington, D.C., US | Reuters

A $1.9 trillion COVID-19 emergency relief plan was passed in the US Senate after Vice President Kamala Harris used her tie-breaking vote to resolve a 50/50 split in the chamber’s votes.

Since the Senate passed several amendments to the bill, it will return to the Democrat-controlled House where it is likely to be cleared.

The bill includes $400 billion for provisions to fight COVID-19 with more vaccines and testing, over $1 trillion direct relief to families (which could include the $1,400 stimulus cheques as well as unemployment insurance benefits) and $440 billion in aid to communities and businesses.

A shell bill, the exact details of the legislation will be incorporated later after the House works out the finer points. In what has been dubbed the “American Rescue Plan”, President Joe Biden has proposed a $1,400 direct stimulus payment, $400 a week in federal unemployment benefits, $350 billion for state and local governments, hiking to minimum wage to $15 an hour and more money to sectors like childcare, schools and vaccines.

“No one in America should work 40 hours a week making below the poverty line — $15 gets people above the poverty line,” Biden had earlier said, in late January.

However, the bill may not pass exactly as Biden wants it to, as it will require the support of every single member of the Senate Democratic caucus, as well as near-universal support from House Democrats.

A furious debate has emerged over the plan to raise the minimum wage to $15, with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin opposing the same, saying he supports a “responsible and reasonable” increase from $7.25 an hour to $11. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a vocal proponent of the wage increase, vowed to press ahead. We need to end the crisis of starvation wages, he said.

Republicans have staunchly opposed the hike, arguing for state’s to determine their own minimum wage threshold instead. Due to the Republican Opposition, Biden has opted to include the spending increases in a coronavirus bill that can be forced through using Harris’s tie-breaking vote.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer D-N.Y., called passage of the resolution the first big step to putting our country back on the road to recovery. By moving on a fast track, the goal for Democrats is to have COVID relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires. It's an aggressive timeline that will test the ability of the new administration and Congress to deliver.

Biden, who has been meeting with lawmakers in recent days to discuss the package, will talk Friday at the White House with the House committee chairs who will be assembling the bill under the budget process known as reconciliation.

The marathon session brought test votes on several Democratic priorities, including a $15 minimum wage. The Senate by voice vote adopted an amendment from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, opposed to raising the wage during the pandemic. Ernst said a wage hike at this time would be devastating for small businesses.

With inputs from PTI

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