The Senate — following a grueling vote-a-rama on Friday and Saturday — has finally approved a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, bringing it one step closer to becoming law.
The legislation, which passed 50-49 on a purely party-line vote, with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) not voting due to a family funeral, now heads back to the House, where a vote is expected as early as Tuesday. This step is significant and follows intense back-and-forth in the upper chamber over multiple provisions, including some — like the $15 minimum wage — that were stripped out for procedural reasons, and others, like unemployment insurance, that have been changed in response to pressure from moderate Democrats.
The relief bill, once it comes to fruition, will include a massive boost for businesses and workers still reeling from the ongoing fallout of the pandemic: As of February, 18 million people were still receiving unemployment insurance and nearly 100,000 businesses had permanently shut down. This legislation includes funds aimed at addressing these needs, as well as tens of billions to help with vaccine distribution, more than $170 billion to boost schools, and $350 billion in direct state and local aid.
In the Senate’s final version of the bill, many provisions are consistent with what the House proposed, while other measures have been changed: The overwhelming majority of Americans will still receive the $1,400 stimulus checks, for example, but a slightly smaller number now. Those checks were previously phased out at the $100,000 threshold for single individuals and $200,000 for couples, and the cutoffs are now $80,000 and $160,000, because Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) had pushed for a more targeted bill.
On unemployment insurance, too, lawmakers have reduced the enhanced weekly payment from $400 to $300, and made up to $10,200 of the aid people receive non-taxable for those with household incomes of $150,000 or less.
The House is slated to take up the Senate version of the bill shortly and send it to President Joe Biden for his signature. The Senate vote on Saturday cleared a serious hurdle for the legislation and means that the long-awaited stimulus could soon be approved.
What’s in the bill
Much of the Senate bill is quite similar to what’s in the legislation the House of Representatives passed in late February. However, there were some changes in the Senate proposal that will make a difference in who gets relief and how much — perhaps most notably on stimulus checks and unemployment insurance.
Here are some key highlights of what’s in the Senate legislation:
- $1,400 stimulus checks: There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about who will get stimulus checks, and after lots of haggling, Democrats finally landed on some parameters. The bill would distribute $1,400 stimulus checks to single people earning $75,000 and $150,000 for couples. Payments would then be reduced and phased out for single people making up to $100,000 and couples making up to $200,000. During Senate negotiations, lawmakers changed the parameters around the phaseouts. Now, stimulus checks phase out for single people at $80,000, head-of-household filers at $120,000, and couples at $160,000. That means some people won’t get stimulus checks who did in the past. However, it is worth noting that the legislation also includes checks for adult dependents, such as college students and people with disabilities, so some people will be getting checks for the first time.
- Unemployment insurance: As with stimulus checks, Democrats had some back-and-forth on unemployment benefits. The bill provides an additional $300 in weekly unemployment benefits from the federal government through September 6, 2021. It also extends the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for self-employed workers and contractors, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, which tacks on extra weeks of state benefits, through that date. Importantly, it makes the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits non-taxable for households with incomes of under $150,000, preventing many workers from receiving a surprise tax bill they can’t pay.
- Tax credits: The bill expands the child tax credit to $3,000 per child up to age 17 and $3,600 for children under age 6 for 2021, and it modifies the child and dependent care tax credit so that families can claim up to half of their related care expenses. It also enhances the earned income tax credit for people without children.
- Obamacare premium subsidies: The bill increases the Affordable Care Act premium subsidies for two years for low- and middle-income Americans, or those making up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. That would make health care through the ACA marketplace more affordable in 2021 and 2022. The bill also adjusts subsidies for people who make more than 400 percent of the poverty level to make sure that nobody pays more than 8.5 percent of their income for coverage.
- Money for schools: The bill calls for $170 billion toward schools, including reopening and directing funds to areas such as ventilation system upgrades, reduced class sizes, and personal protective equipment to help make schools safer, and ensures the money is directed toward public schools. Schools are required to put 20 percent of the money toward learning loss, meaning efforts to make up for lost ground with students missing school. It also has funding for higher education.
- Vaccines, testing, and tracing: The bill directs $46 billion to the Department of Health and Human Services to detect, diagnose, trace, and monitor Covid-19.
- Rental assistance: Democrats are aiming to put $25 billion toward emergency assistance to renters.
- State, local, tribal, and territorial funding: The bill directs $350 billion total toward state, local, tribal, and territorial funding, split into 60 percent for states and 40 percent for localities.
- A restaurant revitalization fund: House Democrats are seeking to put $25 billion toward a new program at the Small Business Administration that would support restaurants, $5 billion of which will be set aside for businesses with under $500,000 in revenue in 2019. The restaurant industry has been particularly hard hit in the pandemic — the National Restaurant Association estimates industry losses in 2020 to be $240 billion.
- Energy assistance: The bill directs $4.5 billion to HHS to help low-income people pay their energy and water bills.
- Internet connectivity: The bill establishes a $7.6 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund to be enacted by the Federal Communications Commission, to expand internet connectivity to students and teachers during the pandemic.
A $15 minimum wage will have to wait for another day
Many Democrats hoped to include a provision in the Covid-19 relief package that would have increased the federal minimum wage, which has been at $7.25 since 2009, to $15 by 2025. The provision did make it through the House-passed bill, but it was struck down by the Senate parliamentarian, who ruled it didn’t fit under the rules of the budget reconciliation process Democrats are using to pass the stimulus.
There was some hope that Democrats might find a different avenue for increasing the minimum wage to $15, including overruling the parliamentarian, getting rid of the filibuster, or finding some way to compel companies to pay a $15 minimum wage by taxing them if they didn’t. But ultimately, they forged ahead with the Senate bill without it.
One thing that became clear as Democrats in the Senate tried to hash this out: A significant portion of the caucus doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. A Senate amendment to put a $15 minimum wage back in the Covid-19 bill was voted down on Friday, with 58 senators voting against it.
The legislation may not be everything progressives wanted, but the bill’s passage in the Senate is an important step toward getting help to millions of people.