WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats edged a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package to the brink of House passage early Saturday, even as party leaders sought to assure agitated progressives that they’d revive their derailed drive to boost the minimum wage.
A virtual party-line House vote was expected on the sweeping measure, which embodies President Joe Biden’s plan to deliver cash to individuals, businesses, states and cities battered by COVID-19. Passage would send the measure to the Senate, where Democrats may try resuscitating their minimum wage push and fights could erupt over state aid and other issues.
Democrats said that the still-faltering economy and the half-million American lives lost demanded quick, decisive action and that GOP lawmakers were out of step with a public that polling shows largely views the bill favorably.
“I am a happy camper tonight,” Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from Southern California, said Friday. “This is what America needs. Republicans, you ought to be a part of this, but, if you’re not, we’re going without you.”
Republicans said the bill was too expensive, spent money too slowly to quickly reopen schools, was laden with gifts to Democratic constituencies like labor unions and funneled funds to struggling pension systems and other projects irrelevant to battling the pandemic.
“Before we ask future generations to float us another $2 trillion to pay off these liberal promises, let’s at least have the integrity to admit that this really isn’t about COVID,” said Rep. Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican.
That divide is making the fight a showdown over which party voters will reward for heaping more federal spending to combat the coronavirus and revive the economy atop the $4 trillion approved last year.
The battle is also emerging as an early test of Biden’s ability to hold together his party’s fragile congressional majorities — just 10 votes in the House and an evenly divided 50-50 Senate.
At the same time, Democrats were trying to figure out how to respond to their jarring setback Thursday in the Senate.
That chamber’s nonpartisan parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, said Senate rules require that a federal minimum wage increase would have to be dropped from the COVID-19 bill , leaving the proposal on life support at best. The measure would gradually lift that minimum to $15 hourly by 2025, more than doubling the current $7.25 floor in effect since 2009.
Hoping to revive the effort in some form, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat, is considering adding a provision to the Senate version of the COVID-19 relief bill that would penalize large companies that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour, said a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
That was in line with ideas floated Thursday night by Sens. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent aligned with the Democrats, a chief sponsor of the $15 plan, and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, to boost taxes on corporations that don’t hit certain minimum wage targets.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also weighed in, promising that Democrats would continue fighting for a minimum wage increase and saying that Congress would “absolutely” approve a final version of the bill even if it lacked progressives’ treasured goal.
“If it doesn’t prevail because of Senate rules, we will persist,” said Pelosi, a Democrat from San Francisco. “But we will not stop until we very soon pass the $15 minimum wage.”