Early Saturday, the US House approved an unprecedented $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, celebrated by Democrats as a crucial move in fueling new funding for vaccines, overburdened local governments, and the pandemic ravaged millions of families.
The sprawling bill supported by President Joe Biden and seen as a moral necessity by many now heads to the Senate for consideration next week, four days after the Covid-19 death toll exceeded 500,000 in the United States.
"The American recovery begins tonight after 12 months of death and desperation," Congressman Brendan Boyle told the House Chamber shortly before legislators accepted the package on a rare 219-to-219 post-midnight ballot.
The bill received no Republican votes.
The polarising outcome comes only weeks after Biden's inauguration on January 20, when he called for solidarity in the face of a once-in-a-generation health crisis.
Facing a big setback for Democrats on Thursday, when a key Senate official ruled that the final version of the bill cannot contain a minimum wage increase, the bill passed the House.
Biden lobbied extensively to increase the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, from the $7.25 rate that has been in effect since 2009.
He hoped to include it in the bailout package, which provides most Americans with $1,400 checks and allocates billions of dollars to strengthen vaccination delivery, reopen schools, and finance state and local governments.
It extends unemployment insurance, due to expire in mid-March, by nearly six months, as well as an eviction moratorium for millions of people struggling to pay rent.
After the $2 trillion packages that Donald Trump signed last March to combat the catastrophic spread of the pandemic, the bill is on track to be the second biggest US stimulus ever.
Democrats maintained the amendment, emphasizing their "fight for 15" as a top party priority, even as the Senate parliamentarian ruled against incorporating the minimum wage language in the bill as drafted under budget reconciliation law.
We're not going to relax until we pass the $15 minimum wage," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said."
She said the bill was relevant even if the wage increase wasn't included, and that it would be "catastrophic" if it didn't pass.
She said to the assembly, "The American people need to know that their government is there for them." "Support is on the way, as President Biden has said."
'It's dead of night,' says the narrator.
Republicans fumed over the historically high cost of the bill—and the optics of pre-dawn hours having such a consequential vote.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, "Democrats are so humiliated by all the non-Covid waste in this bill that they are jamming it through in the middle of the night."
McCarthy characterized the bill as "bloated," "political," and "unfocused," with the majority of funding going to programs that aren't specifically linked to combating the pandemic.
The Democrats were accused by him and fellow Republicans of using a pandemic to drive a liberal wish list forward.
McCarthy added that the kit "only throws money out there with no transparency."
The rules of so-called reconciliation in the 100-member Senate apply to spending bills that are authorized to circumvent Republican filibuster attempts and pass with only a simple majority, rather than the normal 60 votes.
The parliamentarian decided that the wage increase would not reach the norm, and because the bill does not have Republican support in the evenly divided Senate, it will be withdrawn in order for Covid relief to pass.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democrat, blasted the laws, saying that they are "archaic and undemocratic" and that they prohibit Congress from passing much-needed legislation that a majority of Americans want.
However, through a spokesman, Biden made it clear that he supports the decision but "urges Congress to move quickly to approve the American Rescue Bill," and will work with lawmakers to get it over the finish line.
Minefield of the Senate
The message to Democrats, who dominate both Congressional houses, is clear: time is running out to revive the pandemic's hard-hit US economy.
The White House budget office said the bill offers "important" resources for coping with health emergencies, and it urged swift passage, as did Biden.
The Senate, on the other hand, is a minefield. Any Democrat will have to vote in favor, with no Republicans showing support, with Vice President Kamala Harris potentially having to break a 50-50 tie.
Before having Biden's signature, the House and Senate texts will then need to be reconciled into a single bill and passed again.
Meanwhile, progressives like Sanders were studying strategies to increase salaries, including adding an amendment to the Covid package that would impose tax liabilities for large companies that pay less than $15 an hour to workers.
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