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House Sends $1.9T Virus Relief Package To Biden

By Andrew Kragie · March 10, 2021, 4:31 PM EST

A narrow House vote on Wednesday sent a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package to President Joe Biden's desk, setting the stage to enact the sweeping Democratic bill that will touch everything from stimulus checks and unemployment insurance to union pensions and internet access.

At a news conference Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the American Rescue Plan "a remarkable, historic, transformative piece of legislation."  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The revised American Rescue Plan passed the House on a 220-211 vote that adopted the Senate's changes. Democrats said it offered urgently needed relief for millions of Americans, although one Democrat joined all Republicans in opposition after saying the package was larger than needed and laden with unrelated liberal priorities. Biden said he would sign the bill into law Friday.

"It's a remarkable, historic, transformative piece of legislation which goes a very long way to crushing the virus and solving our economic crisis," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a news conference Tuesday. "It's so exciting because of what it does: vaccines in the arms of the American people, money in their pockets, children safely in school, workers safely back to work."

Pelosi joined other Democrats in touting the progressive effects of the bill, which she said would rank with the Affordable Care Act among the top legislation to aid poor people in recent decades, partly thanks to a temporary expansion of the child tax credit Democrats hope to make permanent.

Republicans called the measure socialist and said it was the most expensive single law in American history, eclipsing the CARES Act relief bill last year and the GOP tax cuts of 2017 in how much it adds to the federal deficit as projected by the Congressional Budget Office.

"This isn't a rescue bill. It isn't a relief bill. It's a laundry list of left-wing priorities that predate the pandemic and do not meet the needs of American families," Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Wednesday on the House floor. "I've heard people across the country say this bill today is costly, corrupt and liberal. Now, even the Biden White House agrees it is very liberal. They call this [one of] the most progressive piece[s] of legislation in history. For those who are watching, progressive means socialism."

The House had previously approved an earlier version of the bill but needed to accept the Senate's changes before Biden can sign it into law.

The upper chamber dropped a $15 minimum wage proposal, lowered unemployment benefits but extended them for longer, and modified tax provisions, including who's eligible for $1,400 stimulus checks.

The federal boost to state unemployment benefits was set at $300 a week through Sept. 6. The cost is partially offset with extending taxes on compensation of highly paid corporate employees.

Senators also exempted student loan forgiveness from taxation, allowed state and local aid to cover broadband and other infrastructure, and had the federal government fully cover COBRA health insurance premiums for laid-off workers.

The Senate's changes reduced the overall price tag by about $77 billion, according to a new Congressional Budget Office estimate. Some of the savings came from lowering income caps for stimulus checks — now set at $80,000 for an individual and $160,000 for a couple.

The bill's most expensive elements include around $400 billion for stimulus checks; $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, including more than $30 billion for Native American tribes; $250 billion to boost unemployment benefits; $170 billion for schools and universities; $160 billion to expand individual and corporate tax credits; and $125 billion for vaccines, testing and public health. Those approximate figures from the nongovernmental Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget may not reflect certain changes in the Senate.

Benefits provisions include expanded tax credits to offset ACA health insurance premiums for poor Americans, as well as more than $80 billion to rescue struggling union pension plans. Deadlines would be extended for single-employer plans, which drew some opposition from retirees' advocates and from Republicans, who questioned its inclusion in a pandemic relief bill. The Senate altered that section to let employers decide whether to apply changes retroactively.

Other Senate tweaks extended federal contractor relief to pay employees who cannot perform work, and allowed independent entertainment venues to accept government help through both the "Save Our Stages" program and the Paycheck Protection Program.

Lawmakers had wanted to see the bill become law before a March 14 expiration date for the federal boost to unemployment insurance.

The sprawling package was the first pandemic relief bill without bipartisan support; the one Democrat in opposition was Rep. Jared Golden of Maine. Five packages last year costing a combined $3.4 trillion easily passed with majorities in both parties.

--Additional reporting by Stephen Cooper and Emily Brill. Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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