WASHINGTON – With the impeachment trial complete, the focus of Congress is squarely on a new coronavirus relief package, including a new round of checks to most Americans.
House Democrats moved ahead last week with crafting the details of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan, readying to pass a massive $1.9 trillion package that could send $1,400 checks to individuals and other aid to the nation as the prospects of a bipartisan deal fade.
The House Ways and Means Committee – which has jurisdiction over taxes as well as unemployment insurance and other benefits – passed its $940 billion part of the package on a party-line vote Thursday, with all of the panel’s Republicans opposed.
In addition to the $1,400 direct payments and billions in other spending, the sprawling plan would extend jobless benefits set to expire in March, boost funding for vaccination efforts and send most American parents monthly payments of $250 to $300 per child.
Republicans have panned the Democratic proposal as too costly and coming too soon after Congress passed a roughly $900 billion relief package Dec. 21 and called for a bipartisan approach. But with a trillion-dollar gulf between what the two parties appear willing to spend, Democrats are forging ahead through budget reconciliation, a process that lets them bypass the 60-vote supermajority needed to pass most legislation in the evenly divided Senate.
“I am deeply disappointed that the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats decided to ram through a partisan COVID relief package without any input from their Republican colleagues,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said in a statement. “It is our responsibility as representatives to provide oversight and carefully evaluate the gaps in funding from previous relief packages to ensure we are sending additional money to the places that need it most. That work has yet to be done.”
Democrats counter that the December relief package, which extended $300-a-week unemployment benefits until March 14, was intended only as a stopgap measure.
“We knew we were going to have to pass another bill, that’s why we allowed the other one to go through,” said Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat whose district stretches from Wenatchee to the Seattle suburbs.
“This is a package that meets the need. We have parts of our population who’ve been particularly hard hit. They are the people who were already struggling … and they need a big hand up.”
Democrats also see Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” as a chance to address longstanding inequities the pandemic has only worsened. Rep. Suzan DelBene, a northwest Washington Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, has spearheaded an overhaul of the Child Tax Credit to send monthly payments of $250 per child – and $300 for children under age 6 – to millions of families.
“This is a smart way to deliver relief during the pandemic to families struggling to make ends meet but also a good long-term policy that can lift millions out of poverty,” DelBene said in a statement.
In its current form, the Child Tax Credit gives families a tax refund of up to $2,000 per year for each child under 17, but the nation’s poorest families don’t earn enough – and thus don’t owe enough taxes – to qualify for that benefit. A 2018 study by the Urban Institute found roughly 27 million American children live in households without enough earnings to qualify for the full credit.
Elaine Maag, a principal research associate at the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and one of the study’s authors, said boosting support to parents could provide a strong return on investment for the whole country.
“When we invest in young children, particularly, we see this lifetime of good benefits,” Maag said. “They tend to do better in school, they tend to get more education, they tend to have better jobs later on. All of these things are good for everyone, not just for that particular child.”
The Democrats’ plan would transform the credit into monthly payments for all couples earning up to $150,000 – and single parents who earn up to $112,500 – in yearly adjusted gross income. If the proposal becomes law, the Internal Revenue Service would begin sending the payments in July.
While no GOP lawmakers backed the plan on the House panel, Sen. Mitt Romney has introduced a similar plan of his own with even higher payments – $350 a month – for children under 6. The Utah Republican has pitched his proposal as a means of “promoting marriage” and “providing equal treatment for both working and stay-at-home parents.”
Maag said while targeted relief like jobless benefits and the Child Tax Credit are generally more efficient ways of getting help to those who need it, they inevitably miss others in need. That’s where direct payments come in, like the one-time payment in the Democrats’ proposal of $1,400 for individuals earning up to $75,000 a year and $2,800 for couples who make up to $150,000 annually and file their taxes jointly.
“The reason for a direct cash payment rather than expanding other programs is because those programs always miss people,” Maag said, giving the examples of workers whose hours have been cut or those who lost one of multiple jobs.
“Those types of people are feeling real consequences from the pandemic related to employment losses, but they are also all going to slip through that unemployment insurance safety net,” she said. “A cash payment, because it’s a broader tool, is less likely to miss someone who’s in need.”
The Democrats’ plan also includes one-time, $1,400 payments for each child in addition to the Child Tax Credit payments. Adults making up to $100,000 per year would receive smaller payments, with those who earn more ineligible.
Republicans have called for the White House and congressional Democrats to negotiate a bipartisan package instead of passing the sweeping proposal with only Democratic votes, pointing to Biden’s stated goal of working across the aisle.
“Right now, the American people – including those in Eastern Washington – need targeted relief that reopens our economy, gets employees back to work, gets students back in the classroom, and helps restore their way of life,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “Ignoring our recent bipartisan success to deliver results is no way to achieve this shared goal.”
After Biden met with a group of 10 moderate GOP senators Feb. 1 to discuss their $600 billion counteroffer, the White House has sought to redefine what constitutes bipartisan support for the Democrats’ proposal. The president met Friday with several Republican and Democratic governors and mayors who have called for more aid to state, local and tribal governments, another major component of Biden’s plan.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who represents southwest Washington, has pushed for a bipartisan deal along with other members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of moderate Republicans and Democrats.
“There is bipartisan support for targeted aid that focuses on vaccines, school reopenings, financial relief for struggling families and programs that will prevent mass small business closures,” Herrera Beutler said in a statement. “From a purely economic standpoint, the cost of failing to help families and Main Street survive will be much higher – not to mention the devastation that would cause to our psyche.”
Most Republicans oppose more spending until most of the money Congress has already authorized runs out. McMorris Rodgers led a group of GOP lawmakers in a Feb. 4 letter to the Office of Management and Budget seeking details on how much of that money remains unspent. Her spokesman Kyle VonEnde said Friday the Spokane Republican had not yet received a response.
Spokeswomen for Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch said the two Idaho Republicans favor a “targeted” relief package, perhaps even smaller than the moderate GOP senators’ $600 billion proposal.
“Senator Risch supports many aspects of the $600 billion COVID relief proposal, including funds to ramp up vaccine development and distribution, bolster the Paycheck Protection Program for Idaho’s small businesses, and help get kids back in the classroom,” spokeswoman Marty Cozza said in an email. “But he has significant concerns with spending additional money when a majority of the funds from the last relief bill have yet to be allocated and spent.”
“Senator Crapo will carefully review the final text of any COVID-relief proposals before he makes a judgement on how he will vote,” spokeswoman Melanie Lawhorn wrote. “He remains committed to supporting relief packages that take targeted approaches to assisting those most in need of relief from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Democrats are poised to pass the package in the House by the end of February, but some of its bolder components could hit a snag in the more moderate Senate, where the party holds a 51-to-50 majority with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote.
The package advanced by House Democrats last week includes sweeping changes critics say are beyond the scope of pandemic relief, including a measure to increase the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate Arizona Democrat, has said she will oppose that change.
Other provisions are more likely to attract the unanimous support from Senate Democrats needed to pass. Schrier has used her seats on the Agriculture and Energy and Commerce committees to include aid for farmers and increase funding for rapid COVID-19 testing and a national vaccination plan.
Democrats are aiming to pass the full, $1.9 trillion package in early March, before supplemental unemployment insurance and other protections expire. Any bipartisan alternative would need to come together by that time, a possibility that seems increasingly remote.