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Democrats push Biden’s COVID-19 bill with $1,400 payments through House panels

A stimulus check. (Shutterstock via CNN)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats pushed half of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan through a House committee Thursday, advancing $1,400 payments for millions of Americans and other initiatives that Republicans call too costly, economically damaging and brazenly partisan.

The Ways and Means Committee approved its $940 billion chunk of Biden’s proposal on a 25-18 party-line vote, highlighting a frenzied week that’s seeing a dozen House panels fashion contributions to the sprawling measure. On Wednesday, the Education and Labor Committee approved another top Democratic priority — a boost in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 hourly over five years.

“Yes it will. We’re very proud of that,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters when asked if the overall House bill would include the minimum wage increase. Its fate remains precarious in the more moderate Senate.

The House bill would provide hundreds of billions for state and local governments and to boost vaccination efforts, raise tax credits for children and increase unemployment benefits and federal health care assistance. Democratic leaders hope for House passage later this month, with Senate approval and a bill on Biden’s desk by mid-March.

In committee after committee, Republicans futilely launched waves of amendments at the Democratic measures in an attempt to derail the new president’s top initial priority — a massive bill aimed at stemming the deadly pandemic and resuscitating an economy that’s shed 10 million jobs and shuttered countless businesses.

And while Democrats fended the amendments off, their control of the House and Senate is razor thin. Divisions between progressives and moderates and solid GOP opposition means the bill’s final contours can still shift.

Republicans’ amendments spotlighted what they see as political soft spots they can exploit. Their themes were clear: Democrats are overspending, hurting workers and employers’ job markets, being too generous to some immigrants, inviting fraud and rewarding political allies — allegations that Democrats dismiss as ludicrous.

And while the GOP amendments were beaten back, they forced Democrats to take positions that could tee up GOP campaign ads for the 2022 elections.

There were amendments to reduce the $400 extra in weekly jobless benefits Democrats want to provide through August and exempt the smallest businesses from Democrats’ plans to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 hourly from $7.25. Others would have limited emergency grants for undergraduates to U.S. citizens and barred federal subsidies for some job-based health insurance to people without Social Security numbers, effectively targeting many immigrants.

GOP proposals would also have put strings on emergency funds to help schools reopen safely, required that schools offer in-person classes or give the money to parents for education savings accounts if they remain closed. Still others would have ensured that aid for renters, homeowners and the airline industry didn’t extend long after the pandemic ends, and divided $26 billion for urban transportation systems between cities and rural areas, which many Republicans represent.

“I don’t know if the White House knows this, but you’re supposed to be creating jobs, not killing them,” said Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, top Republican on the Ways and Means panel.

Biden campaigned on reuniting a country riven by President Donald Trump’s divisive four years. He met two weeks ago with 10 GOP senators to discuss the COVID-19 plan in a session that seemed cordial but has produced no visible movement.

Democrats say attempts to compromise with Republicans wasted time and resulted in a package that proved too small when President Barack Obama sought an economic stimulus compromise in 2009, his first year. They want to finish this initial Biden goal without any stumbles and before emergency jobless benefits expire on March 14.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., eyeing 2022 elections that he hopes will make him speaker of a GOP-run House, suggested Republicans were ready to work to restore jobs, reopen schools and provide vaccines “to those who want it.” But he said Democrats’ “policy distractions will only make America weaker and bring our recovery to a halt.”

Democrats disputed Republican assertions that, for example, a proposed $400 weekly pandemic unemployment benefit was so generous it would discourage people from seeking jobs.

“The whole force of this amendment is to not, quote unquote, spoil people by giving them too much money,” said Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis. She said it suggested people who’ve lost jobs do not “deserve to live above a starvation-level wage.”

Even so, Republicans voiced concerns about the sheer size of the $1.9 trillion package. “Big doesn’t necessarily mean good,” said Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio.

The Congressional Budget Office expects the economy to add an average of 521,000 jobs a month this year, a sign of robust hiring made possible in part by government aid. But those gains will likely hinge on containing the virus. Employers kicked off 2021 by adding a mere 49,000 jobs in January as deaths from the disease curbed economic activity.

The Energy and Commerce Committee’s section of the plan, exceeding $180 billion, would provide billions for COVID-19 vaccination, testing, contact tracing and treatments. It would invest $1.75 billion in “genomic sequencing,” or DNA mapping of virus samples, to identify potentially more dangerous coronavirus mutations and study how fast they are spreading.

It would also advance longstanding Democratic priorities like increasing coverage under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

It dangles a fiscal carrot in front of a dozen states, mainly in the South, that have not yet taken up the law’s Medicaid expansion to cover more low-income adults, proposing a temporary 5% increase in federal aid to states that newly expand the health care program for lower-income people.

Among the Medicaid expansion holdout states are major population centers like Texas, Florida and Georgia. Whether such a sweetener would be enough to start wearing down longstanding Republican opposition to Medicaid expansion is uncertain.

Associated Press writers Hope Yen and Josh Boak contributed to this report.