Bottom line: Congress is out this week, but the quiet work of pulling together the Democrats’ opening offer at Covid relief continues this week with the House on track to pass their portion of the $1.9 trillion proposal as soon as next week.
In the next few days, the House Budget Committee will put together the final bill based off of the section by sections that committees passed last week. This will ensure Democrats are in a place to be able to get the caucus on board and pass the bill as soon as next week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a five-vote margin on this bill. This isn’t spring 2020, when the economy was cratering and the uncertainty of the virus was so paralyzing for the country that lawmakers came together in a matter of weeks to pass the largest stimulus bill in history with unity. The scrutiny on this package — even by some Democrats — is more intense. That doesn’t mean that a few Republicans won’t cross the aisle and vote for it, giving Pelosi perhaps more room to move the legislation on the floor, but watch members comments over the next several days while they are home on recess to get a clue for how much a lift this is going to be for the House speaker.
The Senate problem
In the last several weeks, House Democrats haven’t been working in a vacuum as they transformed Biden’s proposal into legislative text. Senate Democratic aides from the Finance Committee have been consulting with House Ways and Means panel. The Senate’s HELP Committee has been working closely with the House Education and Labor panel. Aides have been in close contact and Democratic senators have made it clear — both through private nudging and public comments — what they need in the House bill to make it workable on their side.
Still, House and Senate Democrats aren’t in complete unity right now. The expectation is that changes to the House bill will happen in the Senate, but not in a formal committee mark up like last week in the House. Instead, the current plan for Democrats is to bring their bill — with some potential changes that have been ironed out privately– directly to the Senate floor. That could happen as the week of March 2. But, Democrats in the Senate will have two weeks to pass their bill before unemployment benefits lapse. And, if they pass a different bill than the House, the House will have to pass it again before March 14.
For those counting at home, that is 27 days — less than a month — to figure this out.
In that time, Senate Democrats will need to settle a series of intra-party debates over the scope of this bill, whether they are all willing to spend $1.9 trillion, whether they are willing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, whether they are satisfied with the House’s guardrails on stimulus checks that give individuals making $75,000 and couples making $100,000 the full $1,400 while phasing out the check amount faster for higher earning Americans.
Democrats have largely tried to talk about these issues privately and most are likely to vote for whatever comes to the floor given the expectation that giving Americans additional financial benefits is going to be popular. One Democratic senator told CNN last week, “Look, I am voting for this no matter what.” But the next three weeks could test Democratic unity in a way we haven’t seen for a long time.
The minimum wage fight
When Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, was up to become the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, no one in leadership necessarily expected Democrats would be controlling a 50-50 Senate where what Democrats want and what they have to do to legislate are potentially in conflict.
“Kyrsten is working to ensure a next relief bill is laser-focused on addressing Arizona’s immediate needs and believes all proposals not related to those immediate needs — like the minimum wage increase — must be excluded from the package,” her spokesman said in a statement to CNN last week.
Without Sinema, the Senate cannot pass the Covid relief bill even using the budget process that allows them to pass it with just 51 votes. Schumer has no margin for error. And Sinema’s threat could imperil the entire bill. Not to mention, she is not the only one who has privately expressed concerns about raising the minimum wage in this proposal. Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, is also opposed to including this. Whether it would imperil his vote is not as clear.
While Schumer has repeatedly said that he’s working closely with Sanders to try to push it through, other members of Democratic leadership are more sober about the dynamic.
Asked what it would take to include the minimum wage, the Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, told reporters last week “I don’t know what it will take, but I’ve heard serious questions asked by some Democratic members that are going to have to be resolved.”
In other words, right now the issue of raising the minimum wage could seriously endanger this Covid relief proposal. Include it, you lose at least one moderate senator. Leave it behind, you risk losing progressives.
One potential way out of this minimum wage fight
It’s very possible that the issue of raising the minimum wage doesn’t pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian. That could save Democrats the pain of having to make this call for themselves.
Those talks are already well underway now. But, it is possible that the Senate parliamentarian will be the one to actually pull the plug on the issue, saving Democrats from having to make the call themselves and risk losing votes.