The US House of Representatives is aiming to pass Joe Biden’s $1.9tn coronavirus aid bill on Friday in what would be his first big legislative win.
The bill is expected to pass through the House along party lines with Democrats voting in unity for it and few Republican defections expected. That’s despite Biden vowing from the beginning of his administration to push for bipartisan support for his major initiatives.
Even so the bill will spark heated debate in the Senate. Democrats already suffered a blow in moving the bill through Congress when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that a $15 minimum wage increase could not be included in the bill under Senate rules.
The vote on the bill was expected to happen late on Friday.
A spirited and potentially long debate was expected, as most Republicans oppose the cost of the bill that would pay for vaccines and other medical supplies to battle a Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work.
The measure would also send a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments.
A group of Senate Republicans had offered Biden a slimmed-down alternative, but the White House and some economists insist a bigger package is needed.
Biden has focused his first weeks in office on tackling the greatest public health crisis in a century, which has upended most aspects of American life.
Democrats control the House by a 221-211 margin, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is counting on nearly all of her rank and file to get the bill passed before sending it to a 50-50 Senate, where the Democratic vice-president, Kamala Harris, holds the tie-breaking vote.
Embedded in the House bill is the federal minimum wage increase, which would be the first since 2009 and would gradually bump it up to $15 an hour in 2025 from the current $7.25 rate.
Biden has not given up on raising the minimum wage to $15, a top White House economic adviser said on Friday.
A higher wage “is the right thing to do”, White House national economic council director, Brian Deese, said in an interview on MSNBC.
“We’re going to consult with our congressional allies, congressional leaders today to talk about a path forward, about how we can make progress urgently on what is an urgent issue.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers must also act on the coronavirus stimulus package, Deese said.
The $15 minimum wage figure had already faced opposition in the Senate from most Republicans and at least two Democrats, which would have been enough to sink the plan. An array of senators are talking about a smaller increase, in the range of $10 to $12 an hour.
In a statement after the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling, Pelosi said: “House Democrats believe that the minimum wage hike is necessary.”
She said it would stay in the House version of the coronavirus bill.
In arguing for passage of the relief bill, Pelosi cited opinion polls indicating the support of a significant majority of Americans who have been battered by the yearlong pandemic.
“It’s about putting vaccinations in the arm, money in the pocket, children in the schools, workers in their jobs,” Pelosi told reporters on Thursday. “It’s what this country needs.“
Among the big-ticket items in the bill are $1,400 direct payments to individuals, a $400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through 29 August and help for those having difficulties paying their rent and home mortgages during the pandemic.
An array of business interests also have weighed in behind Biden’s America Rescue Plan Act, as the bill is called.
Republicans have criticized the legislation as a “liberal wishlist giveaway” that fails to dedicate enough money to reopening schools that have been partially operating with “virtual” learning during the pandemic.
The House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, complained it was “too costly, too corrupt”. While Republicans for months have blocked a new round of aid to state and local governments, McCarthy said he was open to his home state of California getting some of the bill’s $350bn in funding, despite a one-time $15bn budget surplus.
Efforts to craft a bipartisan coronavirus aid bill fizzled early on, shortly after Biden was sworn in as president on 20 January, following a series of bipartisan bills enacted in 2020 that totaled around $4tn.