House passes $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill

Congress adopts $1.9 trillion stimulus, securing first major win for Biden

By Tony Romm, THE WASHINGTON POST

The House of Representatives approved the American Rescue Plan on March 10. The bill will be sent to President Biden to be signed into law. (The Washington Post)

A House vote Wednesday sends the bill to President Biden, who is expected to sign Friday, the White House said.

Congress approved a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Wednesday, authorizing a flurry of new federal spending and a temporary yet dramatic increase in anti-poverty programs to help millions of families still struggling amid the pandemic.

The 220-211 vote in the House of Representatives almost entirely along party lines now sends to Biden’s desk one of the largest economic rescue packages in U.S. history, which Democrats had promised to pass as one of their first acts of governance after securing narrow but potent majorities in Washington after the 2020 presidential election.

The bill, dubbed the American Rescue Plan, authorizes another round of stimulus payments up to $1,400 for most Americans, extends additional, enhanced unemployment aid to millions still out of a job, and makes major changes to the tax code to benefit families with children. It couples the new pandemic relief with what Democrats have come to describe as one of the most robust legislative responses to poverty in a generation, seeking to assist low-income families who struggled financially long before the coronavirus took root.

“The Biden American Rescue Plan is about the children, their health, their education, [and] the economic security of their families,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) just before lawmakers gave the bill a final green light, prompting cheers among Democrats gathered in the chamber. “This legislation is one of the most transformative and historic bills any of us will ever have an opportunity to support.”

Republicans banded together in opposition on Wednesday, much as they had voted against an earlier version of the proposal in the House last month and the Senate bill’s over this weekend. The GOP approach evinced the tough political climate that Biden is likely to face even after preaching political unity upon taking office. Partisan tensions now threaten to overshadow his expected work in the coming months to shepherd major new investments in infrastructure, overhaul the immigration system and rethink other elements of the U.S. tax code.

“This isn’t a rescue bill, it isn’t a relief bill, it is a laundry list of left-wing priorities that predate the pandemic and do not meet the needs of American families,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) earlier in the debate.

The bill now heads to Biden, who is expected to sign it Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. The signing comes a day after the president is set to deliver his first prime-time television address on the country’s response to the coronavirus.

“For weeks now, an overwhelming percentage of Americans – Democrats, Independents, and Republicans – have made it clear they support the American Rescue Plan. Today, with final passage in the House of Representatives, their voice has been heard,” Biden said in a statement.

“This legislation is about giving the backbone of this nation – the essential workers, the working people who built this country, the people who keep this country going – a fighting chance,” he added.

With the American Rescue Plan, lawmakers adopted their sixth major coronavirus relief package since the deadly pandemic first encroached on the country roughly a year ago. Despite months of partisan squabbling, and delays that at times jeopardized the availability of federal aid, Democrats and Republicans’ efforts generally have helped lessen the impact of a public-health crisis that has killed more than half a million people and inflicted hard-to-calculate harm on the U.S. economy.

The rate of coronavirus transmission has slowed in some states over the past few months, and the pace of vaccinations has started to pick up as well. The country’s unemployment rate also has improved, though 10 million Americans still remain out of work since the beginning of the pandemic, federal data show.

Yet Democrats have said the rate of recovery still has not been fast or robust enough, prompting their push for the new $1.9 trillion stimulus the House approved on Wednesday. They said they hoped to stop the U.S. economy from backsliding by injecting new federal funds into efforts that might help families recover and assist the economy in its efforts to open further.

The newly adopted law includes another round of $1,400 stimulus checks, which Biden and his top aides have said should reach a large number of Americans by the end of the month. Democratic leaders pledged to authorize the aid in the final days of the 2020 campaign, seizing on the highly popular idea to give them an electoral boost in Georgia, where they picked up two Senate seats and ultimately took control of the chamber.

With unemployment, millions of Americans who were set to lose benefits in a matter of days now will received continued, enhanced federal payments of an extra $300 each week until early September. Many workers who collect unemployment also are set to receive a tax break on those benefits.

And the new stimulus includes a dramatic expansion of the child tax credit, for the first time seeking to pay out periodic, perhaps monthly, benefits to families with kids. Biden and his congressional Democratic allies have estimated the changes to law could cut child poverty by up to half.

The bill authorizes a wide variety of additional aid, including a $5 billion expansion to federal programs that help Americans afford food in the pandemic and a $7 billion effort to help students obtain internet access. In total, it includes $1.8 billion in federal spending and is expected to add $1.85 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years, according to a congressional estimate.

Democrats did not get everything they initially sought. An earlier version of the stimulus, which passed the House last month, coupled the aid with the first increase in the federal minimum wage in decades. The idea died in the Senate, where moderate Democrats ultimately proved unwilling to support the aggressive procedural maneuvering that would have been required to raise the hourly rate.

The changes at the time rankled some party lawmakers in the House, as progressives felt they had a broad mandate from voters in the 2020 election to enact sweeping economic overhauls. But Democrats soon lined up behind the bill anyway, stressing it still contained significant relief that promises to help families amid the pandemic.

“Today, we are putting money in the pockets of ordinary people, of poor people, of the middle class, and they will be an engine that creates a healthy, prosperous future for all of us,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) during a speech on the House floor.

Republicans, meanwhile, sought to portray the bill as wasteful and unnecessary. They cited the fact that sums still remain from past congressional packages, including a nearly $1 trillion law adopted in December. And party leaders faulted Democrats for focusing so much relief on aid programs that they say are not immediately relate to the pandemic.

“Democrats made a choice. A choice to put their own partisan political ambitions ahead of the needs of the working class, ahead of the needs of the American people,” said Rep. Jason Smith (D-Mo.), the top Republican on the House’s budget panel, ahead of the vote. “When our Democratic colleagues speak of unity, they mean keeping their party together, not keeping this country together.”

But Democrats countered that the absence of GOP support — after lawmakers crossed the aisle to approve prior stimulus packages — reflected the party’s own political calculations.

“There’s only one thing that’s changed since we passed those first five bills,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “The need is there, the virus is still with us, the economy is struggle, but now we have a Democratic president.”

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