US Congress approves $1.9 trillion Covid relief package

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Nancy Pelosi brings bill to remove Trump
Nancy Pelosi

The US Congress has approved a $1.9 trillion (€1.6 trillion) Covid-19 relief Bill.

The House gave final congressional approval to the sweeping package by a near party line 220-211 vote seven weeks after Joe Biden entered the White House and four days after the Senate passed the Bill without a single Republican vote.

Republican lawmakers opposed the package as bloated, crammed with liberal policies and not taking heed of signs the pandemic crisis is easing.

Most noticeable to many Americans are provisions to provide up to $1,400 dollar (€1,175) direct payments this year to most adults and extend $300 dollar (€250) per week emergency unemployment benefits into early September.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “It’s a remarkable, historic, transformative piece of legislation which goes a very long way to crushing the virus and solving our economic crisis.”

For Mr Biden and Democrats, the Bill is essentially a canvas on which they have painted their core beliefs – that government programmes can be a benefit, not a bane, to millions of people and that spending huge sums on such efforts can be a cure, not a curse.

The measure so closely tracks Democrats’ priorities that several rank it among the top achievements of their careers, and despite their slender congressional majorities there was never any real suspense over its fate.

They were also empowered by three dynamics: their unfettered control of the White House and Congress, polls showing robust support for Mr Biden’s approach, and a moment when most voters care little that the national debt is soaring towards a stratospheric $22 trillion (€18.4 trillion).

Neither party seems much troubled by surging red ink – except when the other is using it to finance its priorities, be they Democratic spending or Republican tax cuts.

A dominant feature of the Bill is initiatives making it one of the biggest federal thrusts in years to assist lower- and middle-income families.

Included are expanded tax credits over the next year for children, childcare and family leave plus spending for renters, feeding programmes and people’s utility bills.

The measure provides up to $1,400 in direct payments to most Americans, extended emergency unemployment benefits, and hundreds of billions for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments as well as help for schools, state and local governments and ailing industries, from airlines to concert halls.

There is aid for farmers of colour and pension systems, as well as subsidies for consumers buying health insurance and states expanding Medicaid coverage for lower earners.

Its very expansiveness is a chief talking point for Republicans.

Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana said: “It’s not focused on Covid relief. It’s focused on pushing more of the far-left agenda.”

An Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research poll found last week that 70 per cent of Americans back Mr Biden’s response to the virus – including 44 per cent of Republicans.

Yet the Bill’s pathway has underscored Democrats’ challenges as they seek to build a legislative record to persuade voters to keep them running US congress in next year’s elections.

Democrats control the US senate, split 50-50, but only because Vice President Kamala Harris gives them the winning vote in tied calls. They have just a 10-vote advantage in the US house.

That leaves almost no wiggle room for a party that ranges from West Virginia senator Joe Manchin on the conservative side to progressives like Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Progressives had to swallow big concessions in the Bill to solidify moderate support. The most painful of these was dropping the US house-approved federal minimum-wage increase to $15 per hour by 2025.

Moderates forced tightened eligibility for the 1,400-dollar stimulus cheques, now phased out completely for individuals earning $80,000 (€67,000) and couples making $160,000 dollars (€134,000).

The house’s initial extension of the soon-to-end $400 dollar (€335) weekly emergency jobless payments, paid on top of state benefits, was trimmed by the US senate to $300 (€250) and will now halt in early September.

Dropping the minimum-wage boost was “infuriating”, said representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the roughly 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus.

But she called the overall Bill “incredibly bold”, adding: “It hits all of our progressive priorities — putting money in people’s pockets, shots in arms, unemployment insurance, child care, schools.”

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