Congress sends $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package to Biden's desk

By Clare Foran, Katie Lobosco and Tami Luhby, CNN

    (CNN) -- The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to approve the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, paving the way for President Joe Biden to sign his top legislative priority into law later this week and deliver aid to most American households amid the pandemic.

Passage of the bill marks the first major legislative achievement of the new administration and a Congress that is now under full Democratic control, with narrow majorities in the House and Senate.

House Democrats passed the legislation on party line vote of 220-211. No Republicans voted in favor. One Democrat voted against the bill: Rep. Jared Golden of Maine.

Key features of the plan include up to $1,400-per-person stimulus payments that will send money to about 90% of households, a $300 federal boost to weekly jobless benefits, an expansion of the child tax credit of up to $3,600 per child and $350 billion in state and local aid, as well as billions of dollars for K-12 schools to help students return to the classroom, to assist small businesses hard-hit by the pandemic and for vaccine research, development and distribution.

In addition, the far-reaching legislation extends a 15% increase in food stamp benefits through September, helps low-income households cover rent, makes federal premium subsidies for Affordable Care Act policies more generous and provides $8.5 billion to rural hospitals and health care providers.

Democrats say that more government action is needed to shore up the economy, aid in the recovery and deliver relief to Americans who continue to be hurt by the pandemic.

Republicans, however, have criticized the plan as a partisan wish list of liberal agenda items that is not sufficiently targeted, and have so far put up a united front in opposition.

The economic recovery looks to be on more solid footing than it was just a few months ago, with more jobs added in February than economists had expected, though America is still down 9.5 million jobs from February last year.

How the Senate revised the legislation ahead of final passage

The legislation won final approval in the House after the Senate made a series of revisions to the bill and passed it over the weekend.

Notable changes made by the Senate include narrowing eligibility for stimulus checks, trimming the federal boost to jobless benefits and eliminating an increase in the federal minimum wage. The House had previously passed the bill, including the wage hike, at the end of February.

The checks will phase out faster than in previous rounds, completely cutting off individuals who earn more than $80,000 a year and married couples earning more than $160,000 -- regardless of how many children they have. The revisions made by the Senate will leave out about 7 million families, according to an estimate from the Penn Wharton Budget Model.

But the Senate kept the income thresholds the same for who gets the full payments: individuals earning less than $75,000 a year and married couples earning less than $150,000 will receive $1,400 per person, including children.

On unemployment benefits, the Senate changed the legislation to provide a $300 federal boost to weekly jobless payments and extend two key pandemic unemployment benefits programs through September 6. The first $10,200 worth of benefits will be tax-free for households with annual incomes of less than $150,000. That marked a significant change from the earlier-passed House bill, which would have provided a $400 weekly enhancement through August 29.

Finally, the minimum wage hike was removed by the Senate after the parliamentarian, a little known but powerful official, ruled it out of bounds under the reconciliation process that Democrats used to advance the legislation in the chamber with only a simple majority and no Republican support.

Democrats race the clock to pass relief

Democrats raced the clock in an effort to get the legislation to the President's desk as quickly as possible.

An estimated 11.4 million workers will lose their unemployment benefits between mid-March and mid-April unless Congress passes its next coronavirus relief package quickly, a recent study by The Century Foundation found.

Action on the bill was briefly stalled Wednesday morning when Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia called for a motion to adjourn, a move she has repeatedly used to disrupt the floor schedule and that has frustrated even members of her own party.

The vote on the motion to adjourn failed by a tally of 149 to 235 with a significant number of Republicans voting in opposition, the largest number of Republicans to vote against Greene's motion to adjourn since the Georgia freshman started pulling the move.

Biden told reporters Monday that he will sign the relief package as soon as it lands on his desk. "As soon as I get it," the President said when asked when he would be signing the bill.

The final vote in the House on Wednesday came after a marathon session of amendment votes in the Senate last week that featured an all-night "vote-a-rama" and a 12-hour struggle to get one Democrat to support the party's plan on a critical issue.

Sen. Joe Manchin's unexpected opposition last Friday to a Democratic deal on unemployment benefits ground action in the Senate to a halt for hours and prompted a furious lobbying effort with both parties trying to win over the West Virginia Democrat.

Democrats kept a Senate roll call vote open for 11 hours and 50 minutes, the longest in recent history, in an effort to resolve the situation, a sign of the centrist Democrat's power in the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats control the narrowest possible majority, and an example of how a single senator can derail the President's agenda.

Manchin finally agreed to extend $300 weekly unemployment benefits through September 6, and the Senate passed the revised legislation on Saturday.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Wednesday.

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