US president Joe Biden’s ambitious $1.9trn coronavirus relief package is expected to clear a vote in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, even without Republican support, following its narrow 50-49 party-line passage through the Senate on Saturday.
Assuming it lands on the Resolute Desk for Mr Biden’s sign-off, the Democratic-led American Rescue Plan will be the second-largest economic stimulus bill in US history and aims to kickstart the recovery from the devastation wrought by the pandemic over the last year.
Its approval will mark a major win for the new administration less than two months into its first term and signal that a more collegiate, less partisan spirit of cooperation is possible on Capitol Hill following the curtailing of the bitter and divisive Donald Trump era.
What does the bill contain?
Although the first iteration of the American Rescue Plan unveiled in January has had to be modified in the interests of compromise – notably narrowing eligibility for stimulus cheques, reducing its boost to unemployment benefits and abandoning a progressive move to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which was never likely to fly with Republicans – it contains much to encourage American citizens that a brighter day is just around the corner.
The 628-page bill’s headline policy action remains its provision of $1,400 monthly bailout cheques, which will be dispatched to individuals earning less than $75,000 a year and couples earning less than $150,000 a year, providing additional income to 90 per cent of US households. Originally, $80,000 and $160,000 were the intended cut-off points.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has pledged the cheques will be sent out within the month and will not include Mr Biden’s signature, which slowed the dispatch of Mr Trump’s cheques last year.
“We are doing everything in our power to expedite the payments and not delay them, which is why the president’s name will not appear on the memo line of this round of stimulus cheques,” she said. “The cheques will be signed by a career official at the bureau of fiscal service. This is not about him. It is about the American people getting relief.”
Unemployment benefits will receive a $300-a-week boost as part of the relief bill, down from the $400 initially proposed, while two key programmes – the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programme for freelancers and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programme – will be extended until 6 September 2021 to support out-of-work Americans.
At a national level, the bill will also provide $350bn to states, local governments, territories and Native American tribes to bolster the economic recovery at a county level while schools, colleges and universities will receive $170bn and $8.5bn will be made available to support struggling rural hospitals.
Small businesses will benefit from a new $15bn Emergency Injury Disaster Loan programme, while $25bn is being pledged to help bars and restaurants recover from loss of earnings in lockdown.
A dominant characteristic of the bill is its emphasis on initiatives geared towards assisting lower and middle-income families. Households will be supported by a 15 per cent increase in food stamp benefits, for instance, while $20bn will be put aside to help low-income homes cover their overdue rent and utility bills and $10bn made available to help homeowners meet their mortgage, utility and property tax commitments.
As part of a bid to combat poverty, the bill proposes to expand child tax credit to $3,600 for each child under six and $3,000 for each child under 18. Currently, families that qualify receive up to $2,000 per child under 17.
Approximately $39bn will be made available to support childcare providers.
On healthcare, the bill will make federal premium subsidies for Affordable Care Act policies more generous, ensuring that enrollees pay no more than 8.5 per cent of their income towards coverage, down from nearly 10 per cent at present, while those earning more than the current cap of 400 per cent of the federal poverty level – about $51,000 for an individual and $104,800 for a family of four – would be made eligible for help.
Lastly, the bill will provide $14bn to research, develop, distribute, administer and strengthen confidence in Covid-19 vaccines. An estimated $7.7bn will go towards hiring 100,000 people to help with the vaccination push, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency will receive a further $50bn, some of which will be used to support the inoculation drive.
What are both sides saying?
While the Democrats might have only just forced their advantage in the Senate to get the bill passed – with Mr Biden having to make a timely, personal intervention to keep West Virginia’s conservative-leaning Joe Manchin on side – they have been keen to talk up the stimulus effort as a landmark accomplishment.
“It is so exciting, as you know, because of what it does: vaccines in the arms of the American people, money in their pockets, children safely in schools, workers safely back to work,” House speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday.
“It is a remarkable, historic, transformative piece of legislation, which goes a very long way towards crushing the virus and solving our economic crisis.”
New York congressman Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said the push showed: “Leadership matters. Vaccinations are up, infections are down, $1,400 survival checks are on the way, and that is only the beginning.”
House Republicans though have indicated that not a single one of their number will support it.
“It’s not focused on Covid relief. It’s focused on pushing more of the far-left agenda," complained House minority whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
“We know that the result of that package is going to be middle-class tax increases,” added Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, who recently angered the Trump loyalists in her party by breaking ranks to vote for the former president’s second impeachment over the Capitol riot.
Even more condemnatory was the American Action Network, a PAC tied to House GOP leaders, which has released adverts online attacking the Democrats and calling the relief bill “a freight train of frivolous spending to bankroll their liberal cronies”.
Not all Democrats are satisfied either, with progressive congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington State calling the dropping of the minimum wage boost “infuriating”.
But Biden treasury secretary Janet Yellen issued an impassioned and optimistic call for the bill on Tuesday night, saying: “If we do our job, I am confident that Americans will make it to the other side of this pandemic – and be met there by some measure of prosperity ... It will finally allow us to do what most of us came to government for – not simply to fight fires and resolve crises, but to build a better country.”
Will President Biden address the nation?
Yes. Mr Biden is scheduled to deliver a televised primetime speech on Thursday evening in response to the bill’s expected passage.
According to Ms Psaki, the president will use the address to “talk about Covid, what we have been through as a country, and what the path forward looks like”.
CNN suggests Mr Biden is then expected to hold his first presidential news conference before speaking to a joint session of Congress and hopping aboard Air Force One to promote his stimulus message as part of a cross-country tour the likes of which the pandemic has made impossible over the last 12 months.
The president reportedly believes his old boss Barack Obama was too modest in touting the success of his $800bn Recovery Act in 2009 and is seeking to avoid a repeat of the same error.
However, the sheer size of and scope of the American Rescue Plan means that, should it fail to achieve its goals, Mr Biden can expect to find himself the fall guy.
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