Narrow victory for US Covid relief plan

President Joe Biden says the bill will provide financial relief for many struggling Americans....
President Joe Biden says the bill will provide financial relief for many struggling Americans. Photo: Reuters
The US Senate has passed President Joe Biden's Covid-19 relief plan in a party-line vote after an all-night session delayed repeatedly as the Republican minority tried but failed to push through about 30 amendments.

The $US1.9 trillion ($NZ2.6 trillion) plan passed in a 50-49 vote with the support of every Democrat but no Republicans on Saturday.

It is one of the largest stimulus bills in the history of the United States and gives Biden his first major legislative victory since taking office in January.

The partisan victory was made possible by Democrats winning two Senate seats in Georgia special elections in January, giving them narrow control of the chamber.

Biden said on Saturday he hoped for quick passage of the revised bill by the House of Representatives so he could sign it and start sending $US1400 direct payments to Americans.

"This plan will get checks out the door starting this month to the American people, who so desperately need the help," Biden said at the White House after the vote.

The final bill includes $US400 billion in one-time payments of $US1400 to many Americans, with a phase-out starting for those with annual incomes above $US75,000.

It also includes $US300 a week in extended jobless benefits for the 9.5 million people thrown out of work in the crisis.

Democrats agreed to reduce those benefits from $US400 a week in order to secure passage in the Senate. They want the bill signed into law before current unemployment benefits expire on March 15.

About $US350 billion in aid was also set aside for state and local governments that have seen the pandemic blow a hole in their budgets.

SENATE FIST BUMPS

House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said on Twitter that the House will vote on Tuesday on the Senate-passed bill.

Democrats broke out in applause amid passage of the bill in the Senate on Saturday and liberal independent Senator Bernie Sanders fist-bumped Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Schumer said the bill would help the country get the upper hand against a pandemic that has killed more than 520,000 people across the United States and upended most aspects of daily life.

"I want the American people to know that we're going to get through this and someday soon our businesses will reopen, our economy will reopen and life will reopen," Schumer said.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, however, had harsh words about the measure. "The Senate has never spent $US2 trillion in a more haphazard way or through a less rigorous process," he said.

Republicans had sought a new round of aid about one-third the size of Biden's plan.

McConnell argued that even without this legislation, "2021 is already set to be our comeback year" because of relief bills enacted last year.

The measure comes as an increasing number of states have relaxed restrictions designed to curb the pandemic.

Texas earlier this week allowed most businesses to operate at full capacity and California saying it would soon allow Disneyland and other theme parks as well as sports stadiums to reopen at limited capacity.

But even as more and more Americans get vaccinated against Covid-19, top infectious disease official Dr Anthony Fauci has said that "now is not the time to pull back."

TWELVE-HOUR STANDOFF

Disagreements among Democrats over the jobless benefits and the all-night effort by Republicans to amend a bill that polls show is popular with voters illustrated the difficulty Biden will face in pushing other policies through a Senate that Democrats control by the narrowest of majorities.

The chamber set a record for its longest single vote in the modern era - 11 hours and 50 minutes - as Democrats negotiated a compromise on unemployment benefits to satisfy centrists such as Senator Joe Manchin, who walks a tightrope as a Democrat representing West Virginia, which backed Republican former President Donald Trump in the November election.

The extended unemployment payments, which are to be paid out on top of state jobless benefits, proved to be the most contentious part of the bill.

The House bill had set the supplemental benefit at $US400 a week, but Senate Democrats finally agreed to knock that down to $US300.

The House bill also featured a measure to more than double the minimum wage to $US15 per hour, which the Senate rejected.

Moderate Democrats had feared that the higher jobless benefits and minimum wage hike would overheat the economy and hurt businesses in rural states.

Asked if the changes would frustrate some Democrats who propelled him to office in the November elections, Biden said: "They're not frustrated. As Senator Sanders said, this is the most progressive bill since he's been here."

Senate Democrats used a process called reconciliation to pass the measure with a simple majority rather than the 60 of 100 votes normally required under the chamber's rules.

It was unclear whether Democrats will try to use that manoeuver on other policy goals such as legislation dealing with climate change and immigration.

One Republican, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, left Washington on Friday night for a family funeral, meaning that Democrats did not need Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote in the normally 50-50 chamber.

Republicans broadly supported previous stimulus packages to fight the virus and revive the economy. But with Democrats in charge of the White House and both chambers of Congress, they criticised this bill as too expensive.

The country has yet to replace 9.5 million jobs lost since last year and the White House says it could take years to do so.

Washington got unexpected good news on Friday after data showed that US employment surged in February, adding 379,000 jobs, significantly higher than many economists had expected.

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