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Biden on cusp of triumph with US congress poised to approve Covid relief bill

The move will push through a landmark 1.9 trillion dollar package.

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President Joe Biden (AP)

President Joe Biden (AP)

President Joe Biden (AP)

US congress is poised to approve a landmark 1.9 trillion dollar (£1.3 trillion) Covid-19 relief bill.

The move puts US president Joe Biden on the cusp of an early triumph that advances Democratic priorities and showcases the unity his party will need to forge future victories.

The US house of representatives is expected to give final congressional approval to the package, which aims to fulfil Democrats’ campaign promises to beat the pandemic and revive America’s enfeebled economy.

House and senate Republicans have unanimously opposed the package, saying it is bloated, crammed with liberal policies and fails to take heed of signs that the dual crises are easing.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “It’s a remarkable, historic, transformative piece of legislation which goes a very long way to crushing the virus and solving our economic crisis.”

For Mr Biden and Democrats, the bill is essentially a canvas on which they have painted their core beliefs – that government programmes can be a benefit, not a bane, to millions of people and that spending huge sums on such efforts can be a cure, not a curse.

The measure so closely tracks Democrats’ priorities that several rank it among the top achievements of their careers, and despite their slender congressional majorities there was never any real suspense over its fate.

They were also empowered by three dynamics: their unfettered control of the White House and congress, polls showing robust support for Mr Biden’s approach, and a moment when most voters care little that the national debt is soaring toward a stratospheric 22 trillion dollars (£15.8 trillion).

Neither party seems much troubled by surging red ink – except when the other is using it to finance its priorities, be they Democratic spending or Republican tax cuts.

A dominant feature of the bill is initiatives making it one of the biggest federal thrusts in years to assist lower- and middle-income families.

Included are expanded tax credits over the next year for children, childcare and family leave plus spending for renters, feeding programmes and people’s utility bills.

The measure provides up to 1,400 dollars (£1,000) in direct payments to most Americans, extended emergency unemployment benefits, and hundreds of billions for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments as well as help for schools, state and local governments and ailing industries, from airlines to concert halls.

There is aid for farmers of colour and pension systems, as well as subsidies for consumers buying health insurance and states expanding Medicaid coverage for lower earners.

Its very expansiveness is a chief talking point for Republicans.

Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana said: “It’s not focused on Covid relief. It’s focused on pushing more of the far-left agenda.”

An Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research poll found last week that 70% of Americans back Mr Biden’s response to the virus – including 44% of Republicans.

Yet the bill’s pathway has underscored Democrats’ challenges as they seek to build a legislative record to persuade voters to keep them running US congress in next year’s elections.

Democrats control the US senate, split 50-50, but only because Vice President Kamala Harris gives them the winning vote in tied calls. They have just a 10-vote advantage in the US house.

That leaves almost no wiggle room for a party that ranges from West Virginia senator Joe Manchin on the conservative side to progressives like Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Progressives had to swallow big concessions in the bill to solidify moderate support. The most painful of these was dropping the US house-approved federal minimum-wage increase to 15 dollars per hour by 2025.

Moderates forced tightened eligibility for the 1,400-dollar stimulus cheques, now phased out completely for individuals earning 80,000 dollars (£58,000) and couples making 160,000 dollars (£115,000).

The house’s initial extension of the soon-to-end 400 dollar (£288) weekly emergency jobless payments, paid on top of state benefits, was trimmed by the US senate to 300 dollars (£216) and will now halt in early September.

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Speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi (AP)

Speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi (AP)

AP/PA Images

Speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi (AP)

Dropping the minimum-wage boost was “infuriating”, said representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the roughly 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus.

But she called the overall bill “incredibly bold”, adding: “It hits all of our progressive priorities — putting money in people’s pockets, shots in arms, unemployment insurance, child care, schools.”

The independent Tax Policy Centre said that the senate-passed bill would give almost 70% of this year’s tax breaks to households earning 91,000 dollars (£66,000) or less.

In contrast, the Trump-era Republican tax bill gave nearly half its 2018 reductions to the top 5% of households earning around 308,000 dollars (£222,000), said the research centre, which is run by the liberal-leaning Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.

However, keeping Democrats united will not get easier as the party tries advancing the rest of its agenda.

There are fault lines within the party over priorities like immigration, health care and taxes.

At some point it seems likely that progressives will draw their own lines in the sand. They are already demanding that the party should revisit the minimum-wage boost, and amid all this Republicans are already demonstrating they are ready to pounce.

The American Action Network, tied to House GOP leaders, said it’s launched digital ads in mostly moderate districts calling the relief bill “a freight train of frivolous spending to bankroll their liberal cronies”.

The bill passed the senate under budget rules that prevented Republicans from launching filibusters, which require 60 votes for most measures.

That process will not be available for much legislation moving forward, but either way any Democratic Senate defections will make most bills there non-starters.

PA


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