Biden $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill nears finish line in Congress

WASHINGTON - The House is poised to approve a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill on Wednesday and send it to President Joe Biden to sign, a major early legislative victory for the new president and the Democrats who control Congress.

Despite united GOP opposition and a narrow Democratic majority, House Democratic leaders expressed confidence on Tuesday that they will have votes to spare. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York said he was "110% confident" of success.

Democrats touted the breadth of the legislation, which they've begun to frame not just as a bill to attack the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn, but as a generational anti-poverty measure.

"This legislation represents the boldest action taken on behalf of the American people since the Great Depression," House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Pete Aguilar of California said Tuesday.

"This is seismic legislation," said Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass.

Republicans are using much the same argument against the bill, saying it's largely unconnected to the pandemic crisis.

"We know for sure that it includes provisions that are not targeted, they're not temporary, they're not related to covid and it didn't have to be this way," said House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming. "We could have had a bill that was a fraction of the cost of this one; it could have gotten bipartisan approval and support."

Final House passage of the legislation would come after the Senate approved the bill on Saturday afternoon following an all-night session. Along the way, moderate Senate Democrats pushed some changes opposed by liberals in the House, including narrowing eligibility for stimulus checks and keeping emergency federal unemployment benefits at their current $300-per-week level instead of increasing them to $400 per week as initially proposed by Biden. A $15 minimum wage also was struck from the bill.

Nonetheless, leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus praised the bill, which Democratic leaders are calling a historic anti-poverty measure in part because of a boosted child tax credit that will provide a monthly benefit for many needy families. House Democrats are talking about trying to make that benefit permanent.

The legislation will also send $350 billion to cities and states, $130 billion to schools to help them reopen, and devote billions more to a national vaccination program, expanded coronavirus testing, food stamps, rental assistance and more.

Final passage would come before a prime-time speech Biden is planning for Thursday to mark the first anniversary of the nation plunging into widespread shutdowns to combat the devastating coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the economy and killed more than 520,000 Americans. Although the economy has shown signs of rebounding, millions still remain unemployed, with the poorest Americans hit hardest.

Not a single Republican in the House or the Senate has voted in favor of the legislation, a notable outcome for Biden's first legislative venture given his campaign themes of unity and bipartisanship. But congressional Democrats say it's bipartisan anyway, pointing to support from GOP mayors and other elected officials outside Washington.

"This is bipartisan legislation . . . to me it is the best piece of bipartisan legislation that I've seen here in a long, long time," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.

Two House Democrats - Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Jared Golden of Maine - voted against the legislation when it first passed the House, before it got sent to the Senate and changes were made that require a second House vote. Schrader has announced that he will vote in favor this time around, saying his concerns about the legislation's size and scope are outweighed by the help he believes it will bring to people in his state. That would leave Golden - who's argued that Democrats should have pursued a narrow vaccine funding bill out of the gate - as the lone defection.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., convened her leadership team for a news conference Tuesday afternoon to take a victory lap on the legislation even before its passage.

"I'm so excited I just can't hide it," Pelosi said.