The US House passed an enormous, $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package early Saturday, hailed by Democrats as a critical step in funneling new funding toward vaccinations, overburdened local governments, and millions of families devastated by the pandemic.
Four days after the Covid-19 death toll surpassed 500,000 in the United States, the sprawling measure backed by President Joe Biden and seen as a moral imperative by many now heads to the Senate for consideration next week.
"After 12 months of death and despair, the American recovery begins tonight," congressman Brendan Boyle told the House chamber shortly before lawmakers approved the package on an rare post-midnight vote of 219 to 212.
No Republicans voted for the bill.
The sharply partisan result comes weeks after Biden's January 20 inauguration, when he called for unity in the face of a once-in-a-century health crisis.
The package cleared the House despite a major setback for Democrats, when a key Senate official ruled Thursday that the final version of the bill cannot include a minimum wage hike.
Biden had campaigned extensively on raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, from a rate of $7.25 that has stood since 2009.
He aimed to include it in the rescue plan, which directly provides $1,400 checks to most Americans and allots billions of dollars to boost vaccine delivery, help schools re-open and fund state and local governments.
It extends unemployment benefits, set to expire mid-March, by about six months, as well as a moratorium on evictions for millions of people struggling to pay rent.
The bill is on track to be the second largest US stimulus ever, after the $2 trillion package Donald Trump signed last March to fight the pandemic's devastating spread.
Even as the Senate parliamentarian ruled against including the minimum wage language in the bill as written under budget reconciliation rules, Democrats kept the provision, highlighting their "fight for 15" as a top party priority.
"We will not rest until we pass the $15 minimum wage," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said.
Even without the wage hike, she said the bill was critical and it would be "catastrophic" if it does not become law.
"The American people need to know that their government is there for them," she told the chamber. "As President Biden has said, help is on the way."
- 'Dead of night' -
Republicans fumed over the bill's historically high cost -- and the optics of holding such a consequential vote in pre-dawn hours.
"Democrats are so embarrassed by all the non-Covid waste in this bill that they are jamming it through in the dead of night," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said.
The measure is "bloated," partisan and "unfocused," with the majority of funding going to projects not directly related to fighting the pandemic, McCarthy said.
He and fellow Republicans accused Democrats of using a pandemic to push forward a liberal wish list.
The package "just throws out money without accountability," McCarthy added.
Over in the 100-member Senate, the rules of so-called reconciliation relate to budgetary bills that are allowed to bypass Republican filibuster efforts and pass with just a simple majority, rather than the typical 60 votes.
The parliamentarian concluded that the wage hike does not meet the standard, and since there is no Republican support for the bill in the evenly split Senate, the measure will be taken out in order for Covid relief to pass.
Progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders cried foul, insisting that the "archaic and undemocratic" rules prevent Congress from passing much-needed legislation sought by a majority of Americans.
Biden however made clear through a spokesperson that he respects the decision but "urges Congress to move quickly to pass the American Rescue Plan," and would work with lawmakers to get it over the finish line.
- Senate minefield -
The message to Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, is clear: time is running out to revive a US economy hit hard by the pandemic.
The White House budget office said the measure provides "critical" tools for tackling health crises and, like Biden, urged its swift passage.
But the Senate is a minefield. With no Republicans expressing support, every Democrat would have to vote in favor, with Vice President Kamala Harris likely needed to break a 50-50 tie.
The House and Senate texts would then need to be reconciled into a single bill and passed again before getting Biden's signature.
Progressives like Sanders meanwhile were studying ways to raise wages, including introducing an amendment to the Covid package that would create tax penalties for major corporations which pay employees less than $15 an hour.
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