Senate Democrats consider changes to House virus relief bill

Senate Democrats are considering reshaping parts of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill passed by the House, as party leaders hoping to salvage a minimum wage increase have abandoned one proposal aimed at pressuring big companies to boost workers’ pay.

The chances seemed slim that Senate Democrats would find a way to include a minimum wage boost in the massive relief package, days after the nonpartisan parliamentarian said it violated the chamber’s rules and had to fall from the bill. Compared to that, most other changes the party was considering seemed modest.

Senate Democrats were hoping to unveil their own version of the relief package as early as Wednesday. Congressional leaders are trying to send President Joe Biden legislation combating the pandemic and bolstering the economy by March 14, the date emergency jobless benefits that lawmakers approved in December expire.

The legislation is Biden’s biggest early legislative priority and looms as a test of his ability to unite congressional Democrats that could cause lasting damage to his clout should it fail. Republicans are strongly against the legislation and could well oppose it unanimously, as House GOP lawmakers did when that chamber approved the bill early Saturday.

Last week, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said they were working on plans to increase taxes on large corporations that don’t meet certain targets for workers’ pay.

But three Senate aides, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, said Monday that party leaders were dropping those proposals.

It was never clear that the idea had won enough support from Senate Democrats to survive. Democrats will need unanimous support to move the bill through the Senate, which is divided 50-50. Vice President Kamala Harris is the tiebreaking vote.

The White House did not embrace the proposals, and some House Democrats reacted coolly to the plan, which would have affected only a fraction of workers paid the minimum wage.

Raising the minimum wage has broad support among Democrats. But while it ranks as the No. 1 priority for the party’s progressives, at least two Senate moderates—Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—have voiced opposition to including it in the relief measure, wounding its prospects and fostering tensions within the party.

The House-approved language would gradually raise the federal minimum to $15 an hour by 2025, more than double the $7.25 floor in place since 2009. Sanders is the chief Senate sponsor of the $15 plan, while Wyden is chair of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee.

Senate Democrats may reshape the $350 billion the bill provides for state and local governments. They also might extend its fresh round of emergency unemployment benefits, which would be $400 weekly, through September instead of August, as the House approved.

The bill also provides hundreds of billions of dollars for schools and colleges, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, assistance for mass transit systems and renters, and tax breaks for families with children or lower incomes.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets in {{ count_down }} days.