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Congress Clears $1.9 Trillion Aid Bill, Sending It to Biden

The sweeping legislation had no support from Republican lawmakers, who called it bloated and unaffordable. It will deliver emergency aid and broader assistance to low- and middle-income Americans.

“This is the most consequential legislation that many of us will ever be a party to,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said after the bill’s passage.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

  • March 10, 2021

WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval on Wednesday to President Biden’s sweeping, nearly $1.9 trillion stimulus package, as Democrats acted over unified Republican opposition to push through an emergency pandemic aid plan that carries out a vast expansion of the country’s social safety net.

By a vote of 220 to 211, the House sent the measure to Mr. Biden for his signature, cementing one of the largest injections of federal aid since the Great Depression. It would provide another round of direct payments for Americans, an extension of federal jobless benefits and billions of dollars to distribute coronavirus vaccines and provide relief for schools, states, tribal governments and small businesses struggling during the pandemic.

“This legislation is about giving the backbone of this nation — the essential workers, the working people who built this country, the people who keep this country going — a fighting chance,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. He said he looked forward to signing what he called a “historic piece of legislation” on Friday at the White House.

The vote capped off a swift push by Mr. Biden and Democrats, newly in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, to address the toll of the coronavirus pandemic and begin putting in place their broader economic agenda. The bill is estimated to slash poverty by a third this year and potentially cut child poverty in half, with expansions of tax credits, food aid and rental and mortgage assistance.

While Republicans argued the plan, whose final cost was estimated at $1.856 trillion, was bloated and unaffordable, surveys indicate that it has widespread support among Americans, with 70 percent of Americans favoring it in a Pew Research Center poll released this week.

Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats planned an elaborate effort to promote it throughout the country, seeking to highlight an array of measures including tax credits for children and enhanced unemployment aid through Labor Day. The effort will begin on Thursday with a prime-time address by Mr. Biden, and congressional Democrats have already fanned out for scores of events in their states and districts to take credit for the legislation.

The campaign is intended to build support for provisions they hope to make permanent in the years to come, and to punish Republicans politically for failing to support it.

President Biden plans to sign the legislation at the White House on Friday.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Final passage came less than two months after Mr. Biden took office and about a year after cities and states began to shutter to stem the spread of the coronavirus, spurring a succession of relief bills that drew bipartisan support and were signed by President Donald J. Trump.

But rather than haggle with Republicans who wanted to scale back the package, Democrats fast-tracked their own measure through the House and Senate without pausing to court Republican support. They stayed remarkably united in doing so, with just one Democrat, Representative Jared Golden of Maine, voting against the final measure.

“This is the most consequential legislation that many of us will ever be a party to,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said at a news conference after the bill’s passage. “On this day, we celebrate because we are honoring a promise made by our president, and we join with him in promising that help is on the way.”

Earlier, she had dismissed the lack of Republican support and said opponents would not hesitate to claim credit for the popular elements of the plan, saying, “It’s typical that they vote no and take the dough.”

As if to make her point, Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, tweeted approvingly just hours after the bill passed about the $28.6 billion included for “targeted relief” for restaurants. His post did not mention that he had voted no.

“I’m not going to vote for $1.9 trillion just because it has a couple of good provisions,” he later told reporters.

The nearly party-line vote reflected a gamble for both Democrats and Republicans, rooted in the lessons of 2009 when Congress raced to address the Great Recession in the opening months of the Obama administration. Back then, Democrats toiled to win at least some Republican backing for what was at the time the largest stimulus initiative to be considered by Congress, whittling down the package in the process.

Economists widely agree that the $787 billion stimulus law that resulted, which attracted scant Republican support anyway, was too small to address the crisis, and Democrats lost the House in the following midterm elections.

This time, Republicans were gambling that voters would become disillusioned with the scope and price of the plan, as well as the partisan process that yielded it, and punish Democrats accordingly.

“This isn’t a rescue bill. It isn’t a relief bill,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader. “It’s a laundry list of left-wing priorities that predate the pandemic and do not meet the needs of American families.”

They were also pointing to an increase in the deficit — which the Treasury Department reported on Wednesday had soared by 68 percent to $1 trillion in just the past five months — arguing that the package would add to an already crushing debt burden.

Top Republicans also sought preemptively to deny Democrats credit for any economic improvement that might follow the measure’s enactment.

“The American people are going to see an American comeback this year,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, “but it won’t be because of this liberal bill.”

Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Republicans have struggled to coalesce around a specific critique of the plan, beyond condemning it as ultraprogressive, a charge that Democrats were happy to accept. Several provisions were previously included in packages Republicans supported when Mr. Trump was in office, making it difficult for them to make a case against most of its components.

The large cost of the legislation, the second-largest pandemic aid bill after the $2.2 trillion stimulus law enacted just under a year ago, was possible only because Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, albeit slim ones. With a 10-vote margin of control in the House and a 50-to-50 Senate where Vice President Kamala Harris can break ties, Democrats had just enough votes to push through a plan more than triple the size of the most generous Republican proposal.

“I want everybody to think back to Nov. 4 — the day after the election — when we didn’t get the result we wanted in the House, we didn’t get the result we wanted in the Senate,” said Representative John Yarmuth, the Kentucky Democrat who leads the Budget Committee, at a celebratory news conference on Tuesday. “We weren’t sure whether we would have the presidency. And here just a few months later, we’re about to pass one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in modern history.”

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Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus Package

The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.

Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more

This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.

There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.

The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.

Mr. Biden had initially talked of bipartisanship, inviting a contingent of moderate Republican senators to the White House to discuss a potential deal. But they were seeking to slash the size of the rescue plan considerably, and the White House concluded that there was not a deal to be had that would meet the need.

Instead of scaling back the package in an effort to win them over and muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, Democrats turned to a budget process known as reconciliation, which requires only a majority to pass major fiscal measures.

Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

The measure will provide $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments; $10 billion for critical state infrastructure projects; $14 billion for the distribution of vaccines; and $130 billion to primary and secondary schools. The bill also includes $30 billion for transit agencies; $45 billion in rental, utility and mortgage assistance; and billions more for small businesses and live performance venues.

It provides another round of direct payments to American taxpayers, sending checks of up to $1,400 to individuals making up to $80,000, single parents earning $120,000 or less and couples with household incomes of no more than $160,000.

Federal unemployment payments of $300 per week will be extended through Sept. 6, and up to $10,200 of jobless aid from last year will be tax-free for households with incomes below $150,000. The bill also increases child tax credits, providing $300 per child age 5 and younger and $250 per child ages 6 to 17.

The practical and political realities that shaped the measure, including the strict rules of reconciliation and Democrats’ razor-thin majorities, produced a narrower bill than Mr. Biden had initially proposed and some temporary provisions that his party will have to fight to preserve.

One is the expansion of the child tax credit. Families will lose it in a year unless Congress agrees to extend it or make it permanent, but Democrats have said they believe Republicans will be unwilling to take away the benefit and plunge millions of children into poverty.

The legislation also contains a substantial, though temporary, expansion of health care subsidies that could slash monthly insurance payments for those purchasing coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And for six months, from April 1 until Sept. 30, the measure will fully cover so-called COBRA health insurance costs for people who have lost a job or had their hours cut and buy coverage from their former employer.

Democrats were also forced to remove an increase in the federal minimum wage, which ran afoul of the budget rules, frustrating progressives. Democrats could not hold their own members together in the Senate to try to revive the measure, which would have raised the wage to $15 by 2025.

In negotiations with conservative-leaning members in their ranks, Democrats also trimmed eligibility for the direct payments and curtailed jobless payments. Still, progressive lawmakers rallied around the final package, even as they vowed to keep fighting to enact more ambitious measures.

“I proudly supported the American Rescue Plan on the floor of the House of Representatives today, and our work is unfinished,” Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “We must keep fighting for policies that meet the scale and scope of this crisis and set us on a pathway to a just and equitable long-term recovery.”

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.