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March 5, 2021, 3:45 p.m. EST

Biden calls COVID relief plan ‘urgently needed’ as Senate hits speed bump over jobless benefits

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Robert Schroeder, and Jonathan Nicholson

President Joe Biden on Friday called his nearly $2 trillion COVID relief plan an urgent priority as the Senate was aiming for a vote on the sweeping measure as soon as this evening or Saturday morning — but was slowed down by a disagreement over unemployment.

“Today’s jobs report shows that the American Rescue Plan is urgently needed,” Biden told reporters as he received a briefing on the economy from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at the White House.

The government reported that the U.S. added 379,000 jobs in February, as hiring sped up. The unemployment rate dipped to 6.2% from 6.3%. But the U.S. has a long way to go to catch up to pre-pandemic levels.

With the Senate debating the $1.9 trillion plan, Biden called it “absolutely essential to turning this around, getting kids back to school safely, giving a lifeline to small businesses and getting the upper hand in COVID-19.”

But the process in the upper chamber of Congress wasn’t all smooth. What was expected to be a lengthy amendment process that could last into Saturday stalled when the first vote, a procedural one on a minimum wage hike amendment, remained open hours after all senators had voted.

Senate Democrats had touted a deal earlier in the day that would have extended the pandemic-related unemployment programs into October instead of late August. Their current end date is March 14, making Democrats eager to pass an extension and avoid a lapse in jobless benefits under the program.

It also would have exempted a portion of unemployment benefits from federal taxes, an idea meant to avoid surprise tax bills for benefit recipients last year.

But the proposal, which Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden said had been discussed with Democrats of various ideological stripes, appeared in danger of being sunk by West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate who has expressed worries about the generosity of jobless benefits.

“I just think that the Democrats right now are in a bit of a quandary. I mean, they’ve essentially stopped action on the floor so that they can try and persuade, I think, all their members to stay together on some of these votes,” Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, told reporters.

The bill’s major provisions include $1,400 direct payments to many Americans, funding for vaccine distribution and an expanded child tax credit.

U.S. stocks /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA +0.66% were sharply higher on Friday afternoon following the jobs report.

/zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime
US : Dow Jones Global
34,777.76
+229.23 +0.66%
Volume: 311.63M
May 7, 2021 5:15p
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