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US Senate to debate on Covid-19 Bill this week after Democrats backpedal on minimum wage

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – The US Senate will start debating President Joe Biden’s US$1.9 trillion (S$2.52 trillion) coronavirus relief Bill this week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Monday (March 1) after Democrats backed down from an effort to raise the minimum wage to US$15 as part of it.

The backpedaling did not end hopes of addressing the minimum wage issue in Congress. Democrats and some Republicans have voiced support for the idea of raising the federal minimum wage, now at US$7.25 an hour, for the first time since 2009, although they disagree on how much.

Republican Senators Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton last week proposed an increase to US$10 per hour, but said employers should verify the wage is going to workers who are legally in the United States.

But two Senate Democrats acknowledged that passing an increase would be challenging in the 50-50 chamber.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives early on Saturday narrowly approved the Covid-19 package, one of Mr Biden’s top priorities. Democrats aim to pass it in the Senate through a manoeuvre known as “reconciliation,” which would allow the Bill to pass with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes normally required by that chamber’s rules.

Senate debate on the Covid-19 Bill could begin as early as Wednesday, a Senate Democratic aide said.

Senate Democrats over the weekend gave up on the idea of trying to pass the wage hike by adding tax penalties to the Covid-19 Bill, after earlier being told that Senate rules governing “reconciliation” prevented them including a straight-up wage hike to the legislation.

There are also political hurdles. Some moderate Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin, have rejected the US$15 figure as too high and suggested an US$11 target could be more realistic.

“We worked through the weekend and it became clear that finalising ‘plan B’ with the caucus would delay passage and risk going over the jobless benefits cliff on March 14,” one source said.

Democrats want the Covid-19 Bill signed into law by March 14, when enhanced unemployment benefits expire.

A group of House progressives urged Mr Biden on Monday to overrule the Senate parliamentarian, who determined last week that the US$15 proposal could not pass by reconciliation.

“This ruling is a bridge too far,” said Democratic Representative Ro Khanna. “If we don’t overrule the Senate parliamentarian, we are condoning poverty wages for millions of Americans.” The White House has previously ruled out intervening.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voiced hope a wage hike would still happen.

“Senator Sanders is determined to increase the minimum wage to US$15 an hour, and he is looking at all available strategies to make it happen,” a source close to Mr Sanders said.

The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Mr Dick Durbin, told reporters that lawmakers should look for another venue to raise the minimum wage, but that “if it takes some 60 votes or a supermajority of some kind, it’s going to be very difficult, obviously.”

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said he was optimistic the Democrats would raise the wage, “even though we may not have the votes right now.”

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Clock ticking

The Senate faces a looming deadline to pass the relief Bill before the middle of the month, when enhanced unemployment benefits run out for the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, which has killed more than 500,000 people in the United States.

Democratic Vice-President Kamala Harris may have to cast a tie-breaking vote in a chamber where Republicans control 50 seats and Democrats and their allies control the other 50. Even that outcome depends on all the Democrats staying united behind the first major Bill to come through Congress in the Biden administration.

Republicans in Congress, who broadly backed Covid-19 relief spending early in the pandemic, say the plan is too expensive and includes things like transportation projects that have nothing to do with relief for Covid-19.

They also do not like the US$35 billion included for pumping up government subsidies to defray the cost of premiums in the Obamacare health insurance programme.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced the measure on Monday as a “bonanza of partisan spending” that poorly targets the needs of American families, devotes only 1 per cent of its spending to vaccines, delays the bulk of its school aid until after 2021 and includes policies that would drag down the economy.

“This is where we are: a bad process, a bad Bill, and a missed opportunity to do right by working families,” Mr McConnell said in a Senate floor speech.

The Democratic measure includes funding to track the virus and distribute vaccines, and sends a new round of aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments.

The big-ticket items include US$1,400 direct payments to individuals, a US$400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through Aug 29 and help for those in difficulty paying rents and home mortgages during the pandemic.

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