WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine was one of two Democrats to oppose a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that passed the chamber early Saturday in a win for President Joe Biden partially muted by a derailed drive to boost the minimum wage.
The new president’s vision for flushing cash to individuals, businesses, states and cities battered by COVID-19 passed on a 219-212 vote after 2 a.m. on Saturday. It ships the massive measure to the Senate, where Democrats look bent on passing a party-line bill while resuscitating their minimum wage push and fights could erupt over state aid and other issues.
Democrats said the still-faltering economy and the half-million American lives lost demanded quick, decisive action. GOP lawmakers, they said, were out of step with a public that polling shows largely views the bill favorably. Republicans said the bill was too expensive and said too few education dollars would be spent quickly to immediately reopen schools.
That divide is making the fight a showdown over which party voters will reward for heaping more federal spending to combat the coronavirus and revive the economy atop the $4 trillion approved last year. The battle is also emerging as an early test of Biden’s ability to hold together his party’s fragile majorities — just 10 votes in the House and an evenly divided 50-50 Senate.
The House bill includes the minimum wage increase, so the real battle over its fate will occur when the Senate debates its version over the next two weeks. The bill would provide $1,400 payments to individuals, extend emergency unemployment benefits through August and increase tax credits for children and federal subsidies for health insurance. It provides billions for schools and colleges, state and local governments, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, renters, food producers and struggling industries like airlines, restaurants, bars and concert venues.
Maine’s two Democratic U.S. representatives split on the bill, with Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District voting yes and Golden of the swing 2nd District voting no alongside just one other Democrat, Kurt Schrader of Oregon. The second-term Maine congressman was also one of two House Democrats to oppose a procedural move toward a party-line package early this month, but he did not announce his stance before Saturday’s vote.
Golden, who supported past aid packages and the vaccine money and enhanced unemployment in this one, said just a sliver of the money in the new bill is targeted to pressing needs. He cited a December stimulus that included $200 million in rent relief money for Maine that the state has not yet begun distributing and state budgets that have done better than expected at weathering the pandemic.
“During challenging times, the country needs its elected leaders to work together to meet the most urgent needs in their communities,” he said in a statement. “This bill addresses urgent needs, and then buries them under a mountain of unnecessary or untimely spending.”
Democrats were trying to assuage progressives who lost their top priority in a jarring Senate setback Thursday. That chamber’s nonpartisan parliamentarian said Senate rules require that a federal minimum wage increase would have to be dropped from the COVID-19 bill. The measure would gradually lift that minimum to $15 hourly by 2025, doubling the current $7.25 floor in effect since 2009.
Hoping to revive the effort in some form, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, is considering adding a provision to the Senate version of the COVID-19 relief bill that would penalize large companies that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour, said a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
While Democratic leaders were eager to signal to rank-and-file progressives and liberal voters that they would not yield on the minimum wage fight, their pathway was unclear because of GOP opposition and questions over whether they had enough Democratic support.
Progressives were demanding that the Senate press ahead anyway on the minimum wage increase, even if it meant changing that chamber’s rules and eliminating the filibuster, a tactic that requires 60 votes for a bill to move forward.
“We’re going to have to reform the filibuster because we have to be able to deliver,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, a progressive leader.
Traditionalists of both parties — including Biden, who served as a senator for 36 years — have opposed eliminating filibusters because they protect parties’ interests when they are in the Senate minority. Biden said weeks ago that he didn’t expect the minimum wage increase to survive the Senate’s rules.
Democrats are pushing the relief measure through Congress under special rules that will let them avoid a Senate GOP filibuster, meaning that if they are united they won’t need any Republican votes.
It also lets the bill move faster, a top priority for Democrats who want the bill on Biden’s desk before the most recent emergency jobless benefits end on March 14.
But those same Senate rules prohibit provisions with only an “incidental” impact on the federal budget because they are chiefly driven by other policy purposes. The parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, decided that the minimum wage provision failed that test.
Republicans oppose the $15 minimum wage target as an expense that would hurt businesses and cost jobs.
“To my colleagues who say this bill is bold, I say it’s bloated,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “To those who say it’s urgent, I say it’s unfocused. To those who say it’s popular, I say it is entirely partisan.”
Story by Alan Fram. AP reporters Mary Clare Jalonick and Kevin Freking and BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.