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Biden, Senate Democrats to plot way forward for $1.9T COVID-19 stimulus plan

President Joe Biden listens on Monday during a virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/UPI/Pool
President Joe Biden listens on Monday during a virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/UPI/Pool | License Photo

March 2 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden will speak with Senate Democrats on Tuesday to discuss designs on moving his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan forward, which was passed by the House but must clear hurdles in the upper chamber this week.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Monday that the chamber will begin debating the coronavirus relief and stimulus package this week. Biden will speak by phone Tuesday afternoon with Senate Democrats about the plan, the White House said.

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The administration and Democrats in Congress are aiming to pass the proposal as quickly as possible to prevent vital benefits from expiring on millions of struggling Americans in about two weeks. But there are problems to reconcile before the law can be sent to Biden's desk.

While some Democrats are still pushing to include a mandatory minimum wage hike to $15 per hour, the version of the bill that's now in the Senate no longer has the wage increase -- the result of a procedural ruling last week that said the issue cannot be part of the stimulus bill.

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The basis for the parliamentarian's ruling is that only certain, specifically defined items can be included in any bill that's being passed through budget reconciliation, a lawmaking process that only requires a simple majority in the Senate to pass.

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Democrats opted to try and pass the relief package by reconciliation because doing so doesn't require any votes from Republicans, who have largely opposed the plan as too expensive and unnecessary.

"I expect a hearty debate and some late nights," Schumer said on the Senate floor Monday.

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"But the American people sent us here with a job to do: to help the country through this moment of extraordinary challenge."

The relief package would extend enhanced federal unemployment benefits, which expire March 14, and increase the weekly amount to $400. The extension would run through September.

The package also would include a $1,400 direct payment for all Americans earning less than $75,000 per year, or couples earning under $150,000. The stimulus payment, which would be the third from the federal government in less than a year, would be based on a person's 2019 or 2020 federal tax return, whichever is available.

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The bill also would provide billions of dollars to help pay for vaccine distribution and aid for local and state governments.

The subtraction of the minimum wage hike, however, has some Democrats still pushing for its inclusion.

Nearly two dozen House Democrats -- including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri -- sent a letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday that asks Harris, in her role as Senate president, to overrule the parliamentarian's decision to exclude the wage increase.

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"Eighty-one million people cast their ballots to elect you on a platform that called for a $15 minimum wage," they wrote. "We urge you to keep that promise and call on the presiding officer of the Senate to refute the Senate parliamentarian's advice ... and maintain the $15 minimum wage provision in the American Rescue Plan."

The letter cites multiple precedents from the 1960s and 1970s in which the Senate parliamentarian's ruling did not impact the chamber's final decision.

"For the last twelve years, working Americans have struggled to get by under a federal minimum wage that remains stuck at $7.25 per hour," the letter continued.

"We must act now to prevent tens of millions of hardworking Americans from being underpaid any longer."

Most experts, however, feel that adding the minimum wage increase is now a dead issue -- as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona both oppose it. And both are needed to pass the stimulus bill in the Senate.

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