Democrats push forward on COVID-19 reduction, Biden versatile on who will get checks

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© Reuters. Police Officer Sicknick lies in honor in U.S. Capitol Rotunda

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By Susan Cornwell and Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress pushed ahead on Wednesday with a maneuver to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package without Republican support, as the White House said it was flexible on a key element of the plan.

Biden told Democrats he would consider tighter limits on who would qualify for $1,400 checks, although he said he would not compromise on the size of the payments. That could possibly narrow the gap between his package and the $600 billion Republican proposal.

Biden has promised to work with Republicans when possible, but he is also pressing Congress to move quickly before existing benefits expire in March.

The House of Representatives approved a budget plan on Wednesday that would allow it to pass the coronavirus package without a single Republican vote if necessary. The Senate has yet to vote on the plan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the budget plan did not make cooperation impossible but that Democrats needed to be able to act on their own if need be. “We must use every option at our disposal,” she said on the House floor.

Representative Jason Smith, the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, said Democrats were using the maneuver to impose a “radical” agenda. “Their plans are to try and use this pandemic to seize more government control of your life,” he said on the House floor.

The budget plan would allow Democrats to pass coronavirus aid with a simple 51-vote majority in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes needed to advance most legislation in the 100-seat chamber. The Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties, giving Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote.

Republicans used the same budget maneuver to pass a $1.9 trillion tax cut in 2017.

TOP BIDEN PRIORITY

The pandemic has killed more than 447,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work, and Biden has made it a top priority. Aside from direct payments, his plan includes additional unemployment benefits, money for vaccines and aid to state and local governments.

Republicans have balked at the $1.9 trillion cost, which comes on the heels of $4 trillion approved last year. A group of 10 Senate Republicans have countered with a $600 billion proposal that includes many of the same elements on a smaller scale.

One of those Republicans, Senator Mitt Romney, said Biden could win some bipartisan support if he modifies his plan. If he makes no changes, Romney said: “I would predict not a single Republican will support the $1.9 trillion plan.”

After meeting with Biden on Wednesday at the White House, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said his party was not inclined to scale back Biden’s package.

“We are united as one for a big, bold package, working with our Republican friends when we can,” Schumer said after he and several other Senate Democrats met Biden at the White House.

Biden’s proposal calls for payments of up to $1,400 per person, a dramatic jump from the $600-per-person payments approved in the last coronavirus package.

Details of the plan remain unclear, but previous payments have been gradually phased out for individuals who make more than $75,000 and couples who make more than $150,000 per year. The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that would cost $465 billion.

Republicans are proposing $1,000 per person, with payments targeted at people who earn less than $50,000 or families that earn less than $100,000 per year. They say it would cost $220 billion.

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