Democrats advance Biden’s US$1.9t Covid-19 bill in marathon Senate session

The US Capitol dome and US Senate (right) in Washington, August 2, 2011. — Reuters pic
The US Capitol dome and US Senate (right) in Washington, August 2, 2011. — Reuters pic

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WASHINGTON, March 6 — Democrats in the US Senate forged ahead with President Joe Biden’s US$1.9 trillion (RM7.74 trillion) coronavirus relief plan early today, turning back Republican attempts to modify the package in a marathon session that had begun the prior day.

With Republicans united in opposition, Democrats who narrowly control the chamber must keep all 50 of their members on board in order to pass the package, as they hope to do this weekend.

Progress ground to a halt for more than 11 hours as Democrats negotiated a compromise on unemployment benefits to satisfy centrists, chiefly Senator Joe Manchin, who worried the massive package might overheat the economy.

With that issue resolved, the chamber then voted on some of the hundreds of proposals to modify the bill.

Democrats voted down a Republican proposals that would have scaled the bill back to US$650 billion; another that would have penalized states like New York that have undercounted nursing-home deaths; and one that would have required schools to provide in-person learning in order to get federal aid.

The largest public health crisis in a century has killed more than 521,000 in the United States, thrown millions out of work and upended most aspects of American life.

The relief legislation includes funding for vaccines and medical supplies, extends jobless assistance and provides a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments.

Opinion polls indicate broad public support for the package.

Democrats hope to get it to Biden to sign into law before some current benefits expire on March 14.

Unemployment aid is just one of many friction points in the sweeping bill. An attempt to raise the minimum wage fell short earlier in the day, and Democrats had earlier modified the bill to steer more aid to smaller states and cities.

The version passed by the House last Saturday calls for US$400 per week in jobless benefits through August 29, on top of state benefits, to help Americans who have lost jobs amid the economic trauma caused by the coronavirus.

The compromise would lower that weekly benefit to US$300, but extend it through September 6, according to a Democratic aide. It would waive taxes on the first US$10,200 in aid that jobless people received last year.

The agreement also extends a tax break for businesses for an additional year through 2026.

Biden supports the compromise, the White House said.

If the Senate passes the bill, the House would have to sign off on those changes before Biden could sign it into law.

Republicans were one vote down after Senator Dan Sullivan left Washington en-route home to Alaska for a family funeral.

Republicans have broadly supported previous stimulus packages to fight the virus and revive the world’s largest economy, which has yet to replace 9.5 million jobs lost since last year.

But with Democrats in charge of the White House and both chambers of Congress, they have criticized this bill as too expensive. The White House says it could take years for the US economy to add back those lost jobs.

Washington got unexpected good news yesterday after data showed that employment surged in February, adding 379,000 jobs, significantly higher than many economists had expected.

The US unemployment rate, while still high at 6.2 per cent last month, was down from 6.3 per cent in January. — Reuters

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