As the Democrat targeted March deadline looms, Congress is closing in on passage of a stimulus bill, called "The American Rescue Plan Act," that will cost the American taxpayer $1.9 trillion. On Feb. 27, it passed in the House 219-212, with two Democrats voting against it. The two Democrats who voted no were Oregon's Kurt Schrader and Maine's Jared Golden. The Senate voted to proceed with H.R. 1319, passing 51-50 in a strictly party-line vote with Vice President Kamala Harris standing by to provide the tie-breaking vote bill.
Now in the Senate, the spending bill is being amended and will go back to the House once those changes are proposed and then to President Biden. It may pass as early as next week. A group of ten Republicans had originally proposed a substantially lower cost in early February for the stimulus package at $618 billion, led by Sen.Susan Collins of Maine.
Determined to see it pass, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in January that the Democrats would move forward with a bill, "preferably with our Republican colleagues but without them if we must."
After Thursday's vote, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson insisted the bill be read in its entirety on the floor. It took eleven hours to read the 600-page bill. Johnson followed along the entire time with a copy of the bill that was "delivered to him an hour into the reading." Johnson said, "If they are going to add nearly $2 trillion to the national debt, at least we should know what's in the bill...the additional debt is $5800 per person, added to the $4 trillion of earlier relief bills, it is a debt burden of $18,000 per person. This relief isn't free."
The summary for the bill that passed the House states that it "provides additional relief to address the continued impact of COVID-19 (i.e., coronavirus disease 2019) on the economy, public health, state and local governments, individuals, and businesses." A screenshot of the summary can be found below:
Senate Democrats are using a special process called reconciliation tied to the budget to pass the package without any GOP support. The process allows them to pass legislation tied to the budget with just a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes most bills require. In a last-minute agreement, Senate Democrats have agreed to lower federal unemployment benefits at $300 a week instead of the proposed $400 passed by the House. They also proposed making the first $10,200 of the 2020 benefits non-taxable.
A new revision extends limits on how high-income users can deduct certain business losses. The limits, created in a 2017 tax law, were suspended with the 2020 coronavirus bill. They are set to expire in 2025, like many things in that law, and the Democrats propose to extend the limits to 2026, thus generating more revenue.
Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced an amendment Thursday targeting stimulus checks, saying that “COVID relief must be timely, temporary and targeted to individuals who have lost their job through no fault of their own. Sending a government handout to Americans that don’t need it is not relief—it’s socialism.” She also called the bill a "Liberal wishlist" that pretends to be a Covid relief bill since very little in the bill applies directly to relief from the pandemic-related issues. Blackburn believes that the "best economic stimulus is a job." Blackburn appeared on the Lars Larson Show on Thursday, saying Republicans will "skinny up the bill" as much as possible.
Other changes to the House bill include the elimination of funding for an extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway in Silicon Valley and a bridge in upstate New York due to a ruling by the parliamentarian. There were also some changes in tax provisions, including a freeze on the growth in annual limits on contributions to retirement accounts after 2030. Instead, tighter limits were imposed on companies’ deductions for executive compensation—set to begin in 2027. Provisions were also added for student loans, making student-loan forgiveness free from income taxes, creating an exception from 2021 through 2025 to the normal rule that canceled debt is income.
Below is a partial accounting of items in the bill:
The current House legislation contains $1,400 checks for individuals making less than $75,000 annually. Higher-income people will have phased out amounts. Married couples who file taxes jointly can receive two $1,400 checks if their combined income is below $150,000. Moderate Senate Democrats insisted on the benefit being phased out faster above the income threshold. Payments would phase out at $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for married couples. Children and adult dependents would be eligible for the full $1,400.
The package allocates $8.75 billion to federal, state, local, territorial and tribal public-health agencies for distributing, administering, and tracking vaccinations. Some of the funds will ensure the vaccination process reaches underserved communities.
$20 billion will go to federal biomedical research for the vaccine as well as therapeutic manufacturing and procurement. Another $3 billion will go to a strategic national stockpile of vaccines. $25 billion will be spent on testing, contact tracing, and reimbursing hospitals for lost revenue related to the pandemic.
Expansion of Tax Credits for Children
The proposed tax credit changes are set to expire in a year; however, it is possible those changes would be made permanent in the future. The plan raises the $2,000 Child Tax Credit to $3,000, sets the credit at $3,600 for parents of children under age 6, and makes parents of 17-year-olds eligible. It would also make the credit fully refundable, so low-income households would get the full benefit, no matter how little they earn. The plan would boost the maximum child tax credit to $6,600 from $2,800 for a household with a 4-year-old and 7-year-old that doesn’t earn enough to pay income taxes.
Federal workers, including postal workers, would be able to take as many as 600 hours of emergency paid leave related to Covid-19 under the plan. Also, the restaurant industry will receive $25 billion in relief targeted at small and midsize restaurants and chains. Grants would be provided without stipulations requiring repayment if the restaurants use them for operating expenses, including payroll, rent, and providing personal protective equipment to employees.
No Increased Minimum Wage
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has long lobbied for a minimum wage increase. However, the federal wage increase to $15/hour was rejected due to procedural objections by seven Democrats and one Independent. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Angus King (I-Maine.) voted to sustain the procedural objection.
Manchin had been the only Senate Democrat to publicly state his opposition to a nationwide $15 wage standard prior to the vote. Manchin instead favors setting it at $11 an hour, indexing it to inflation.
Republicans are calling the bill radical, many saying it is just another path to socialism. However, eleven Democrats are already planning for future stimulus bills, pushing for "recurring cash payments and unemployment insurance until the pandemic is over."