• The Star Staff

Senate could take up Biden’s stimulus plan by midweek

By Emily Cochrane and Luke Broadwater

President Joe Biden met with Democratic senators Monday, touching base with key lawmakers as the caucus hurdles toward advancing the president’s $1.9 trillion economic stimulus plan as early as this week.

Senators are still discussing possible changes to the legislation, which the House passed this past weekend without a single Republican vote. Some moderate senators who spoke with Biden pushed for targeting elements of the relief bill, as liberal senators continue to call for leaders to include an increase to the federal minimum wage after the Senate parliamentarian determined it violated Senate rules.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the chairman of the Budget Committee, vowed to introduce an amendment that would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 — a provision that was included in the House legislation that passed this weekend — and called on Democrats to ignore the advice from the parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough. (Sanders, however, acknowledged “I am not sure, however, that my view at this point is the majority view in the Democratic Caucus.”)

It underscores the delicate balancing act for Biden and Democratic leadership, who cannot afford to lose a single Democratic vote in the Senate in order to pass the sweeping $1.9 trillion plan on a fast-track budget process called reconciliation. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, said he planned to advance the sweeping pandemic aid measure — which includes $1,400 checks for many Americans and billions of dollars for unemployment benefits and small businesses — this week.

“There really isn’t a lot of dispute about the overall size of the bill,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, who was among the nine members of the Democratic caucus who met virtually with Biden. “The question is whether it can be targeted in such a way as to better serve the people who need the most and perhaps free up funds for other priorities.

On Monday, MacDonough told Democrats two other provisions, including pension funding and health care subsidies that allow laid-off workers to remain on their former employer’s health plan for some time, could remain in the bill under Senate rules.

“I am pleased this important provision will remain in the critical relief bill before the Senate this week,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said of the health care provision in a statement. In a separate statement regarding the pensions, he said “the retirement security of millions of American workers depends on getting this package across the finish line.”

Republicans could also challenge certain provisions within the plan as extraneous or failing to have a substantial direct impact on the federal budget under the Byrd rule that governs the reconciliation process. (The rule is named for former Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. and renowned guru of Senate procedure.)

The House, which passed Biden’s bill without any Republican votes, kept the increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, despite the chamber’s top rules enforcer saying that it will need to be removed. The $15 wage is a top priority of progressives but lacks the votes to pass in an evenly split Senate since two centrist Democrats — Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — are opposed to including the provision in the package. The caucus must work out its differences quickly, because the bill is needed to extend emergency unemployment insurance programs that expire in mid-March.

Top Democrats over the weekend decided against including an amendment that would penalize corporations that pay workers less than $15 an hour, a move that could have imposed an escalating tax on the payrolls of large corporations, according to a person familiar with the discussion, who disclosed details on the condition of anonymity. The decision was reported earlier by The Washington Post.

“I was extremely disappointed by the decision of the parliamentarian who ruled that the minimum wage provision was inconsistent with the Byrd rule and the reconciliation process,” Sanders said in announcing his amendment. “But even more importantly, I regard it as absurd that the parliamentarian, a Senate staffer elected by no one, can prevent a wage increase for 32 million workers.”

It is unclear what other avenues remain for the current legislation, although Democratic leaders in both chambers have vowed to pursue codifying the $15 wage even if it means waiting until after the stimulus bill has passed.

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