What to Know in Washington: House Poised to Pass Stimulus Plan

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The House is poised to pass Democrats’ $1.9 trillion Covid-19 stimulus, but a ruling late yesterday by a Senate official dealt a major blow to prospects that the final legislation will include a hike in the U.S. minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Today’s vote in the House will bring most Americans one step closer to receiving $1,400 relief payments and move action to the Senate, where disagreements among Democrats over the minimum wage had been the biggest obstacle to turning the pandemic relief plan into law.

However, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough found that the wage provision did not qualify for action under budget reconciliation, a fast-track procedure that would let Democrats pass the stimulus with only 50 votes in the evenly divided Senate.

Democrats don’t yet have a unified approach for dealing with the minimum wage decision. While Biden called on Congress to “quickly” pass the relief bill, progressives are urging Democrats to overrule the parliamentarian or wage a battle over tax penalties to force higher wages. That raises the potential for disputes that delay Senate passage of the broader stimulus package.

The $15 minimum wage had been a rallying point for progressive Democrats, and Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) immediately proposed a work-around in the form of a tax penalty for large corporations “that refuse to pay a living wage.”

Using tax incentives may address a main complaint from opponents of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour: That it would be onerous for small businesses. It also may be a way to appeal to two Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who’ve expressed opposition to elevating the wage floor that high nationally and whose votes are needed to pass the legislation in the face of unified Republican opposition. Read more from Erik Wasson.

Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
House Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are likely to pass the stimulus measure today.

Relief Plan Threatens to Trigger Medicare Cuts: The coronavirus relief package would trigger cuts to Medicare and other programs early next year unless Republicans agree to a waiver — a hurdle that could give the GOP leverage over Democrats’ slim majorities. The Congressional Budget Office said in a letter yesterday to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that Medicare would face a $36 billion cut, and as much as $90 billion in other programs would be slashed.

The spending cliff is entirely of the Democrats’ making. Under the 2010 Pay-As-You-Go law passed by Democrats and signed by then-President Barack Obama, spending increases and tax cuts that add to the deficit — like Biden’s plan — trigger automatic cuts the following calendar year. It takes 60 votes in the Senate to declare the new outlays an emergency and avoid the cuts, which means Democrats would need 10 Republicans. Read more from Steven T. Dennis.

Also Happening on the Hill

House Passes Business-Backed LGBT Civil Rights Bill: The House passed a bill yesterday to amend a decades-old federal law to add new protections for people based on gender identity and sexual orientation. The bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban such discrimination, codifying protections for LGBT people in areas such as employment and housing. Supporters of the bill, which passed on a 224-206 vote, said its enactment is needed because many states lack such protections. Read more from Andrew Kreighbaum.

  • Three House Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the measure: Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), John Katko (N.Y.), and Tom Reed (N.Y.). They were among the eight Republicans who voted for a similar bill in 2019. Katko and Fitzpatrick represent districts that voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 election, and they cast party-bucking votes more frequently than other House Republicans, Greg Giroux reports.

Climate in Infrastructure Package to Get Big Push: Democratic lawmakers are planning to double down on battling climate change in this year’s highway and infrastructure legislation, going further than failed attempts last year. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del), chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, said on Wednesday the surface transportation reauthorization bill can play “a central role” in accomplishing Biden’s climate goals. Lillianna Byington has more.

Lawmakers Exploring Regional Visa Programs: Lawmakers are exploring potential visa programs that would pair skilled workers with communities in need of economic development in response to a growing gap between local markets and sustainable worker populations. While some economists say this kind of targeted approach for local regions is the kick start they need in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, others argue that federal agencies are least equipped with prescribing remedies for local and regional workforce demands. Read more from Genevieve Douglas.

Republicans Prod State School Chiefs on Campus Openings: House Republicans yesterday asked state education commissioners how they are monitoring use of federal relief money in schools. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) asked the Council of Chief State School Officers to also answer how state superintendents are working with local districts and other states to plan for campus reopenings, Andrew Kreighbaum reports.

Around the Administration

Biden Takes First Military Action With Strikes on Syria Militias: The U.S. carried out airstrikes in eastern Syria on sites connected to Iran-backed groups believed to be involved in recent attacks in Iraq, the first overt use of military force under Biden. “These strikes were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement last night. Read more from Jordan Fabian and Tony Capaccio.

Saudi Crown Prince Implicated in Khashoggi Murder, U.S. Finds: A U.S. intelligence report expected to be declassified as soon as today implicates Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in approving the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a person familiar with the findings. The report builds on classified intelligence from the CIA and other intelligence agencies after Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, according to the person. Read more from Chris Strohm and Nick Wadhams.

  • Biden spoke with Saudi King Salman for the first time yesterday since taking office, ahead of the release of the report. Biden discussed regional security and the renewed U.S. and UN efforts to end the war in Yemen, and “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law,” the White House said in a statement. Read more from Alex Wayne.

Biden Says U.S. Will Distribute J&J Vaccine Rapidly: Biden said the federal government will distribute Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine as fast as the company can produce it, if the shot is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. “If—if—the FDA approves the use of this new vaccine, we have a plan to roll it out as quickly as Johnson & Johnson can make it,” Biden said yesterday at an event celebrating the injection of 50 million doses of coronavirus vaccines since he took office. Read more from Nancy Cook and Josh Wingrove.

  • Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is set for vetting today by a panel of outside advisers to the FDA, one of the final steps toward potential authorization of the country’s first one-dose immunization against Covid-19. If the panel votes that the vaccine’s benefits outweigh its risks, as expected, the agency could grant emergency clearance within days, Robert Langreth reports.
  • Meanwhile, Covid-19 hospital admissions plummeted 72% in a month in the U.S. as the virus ebbed and the vaccination push accelerated. Americans 85 years old and over saw the most pronounced drop, down 81% from January to February, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. Read more from Jonathan Levin.

CDC’s Eviction Moratorium Blocked by Federal Judge: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium was blocked by a Texas judge who said the federal government overstepped its authority in stopping landlords from throwing out tenants. Read more from Chris Dolmetsch.

U.S. Expands Unemployment Insurance Eligibility: More Americans will be able to qualify for unemployment insurance, including those who refuse to work because they are afraid of contracting coronavirus on the job. New guidance issued by the Labor Department expands eligibility for jobless benefits, which also applies to people who have had their hours cut and those working in schools without a contract. Reade Pickert and Olivia Rockeman have more.

Politics & Influence

Trump Returns With a Flourish to CPAC: Former President Donald Trump will reassert himself as the Republican Party’s undisputed leader with a weekend speech to conservatives that highlights the disconnect between his most loyal supporters and those who want to find a new standard-bearer after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump, who has teased the possibility of a White House run in 2024, isn’t likely to announce any concrete plans in the speech, senior adviser Jason Miller said. But in front of a half-dozen potential 2024 rivals, he will call out Biden’s agenda, rally loyalists and boast of “crushing” opposition within the party, according to a person familiar with his plans. The former president speaks Sunday. Read more from Mark Niquette and Jennifer Jacobs.

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said yesterday he would “absolutely” support Trump if he were the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 2024. His remarks, in a Fox News interview, marked an about-face from less than two weeks ago, when he delivered an impassioned speech from the Senate floor in which he held Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. Read more from John Harney and Steven T. Dennis.
  • As CPAC kicks off, some regular faces won’t be in attendance as Trump cements his grip on the party. Instead, the conference will welcome Trump for a keynote speech and the lineup is packed with loyalists and former administration officials. Dissent is not allowed this year. Emma Kinery takes a look at some who are not attending, either by CPAC’s choice or their own.

Conservative Couple Fights Disinformation: A pair of self-described conservative lawyers are leading the fight to shut down the U.S. election conspiracy theory, pitting themselves against some of the loudest voices on the right. Tom Clare and Libby Locke, a married couple who run their own boutique firm, represent Dominion Voting Systems in lawsuits against Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell seeking a total of $3.9 billion for falsely claiming its voting machines were used to steal the 2020 election. Their battle is at the heart of an effort to stop a continuing stream of disinformation from Trump’s supporters—and they haven’t ruled out suing Trump himself. Read more from Erik Larson.

Recall Threatens California Governor’s Ambitions: With a rocky Covid-19 vaccine rollout and potential recall election, California Gov. Gavin Newsom is in peril ahead of his next State of the State address. What Newsom says in his as-yet-unscheduled annual address and how it’s received could be pivotal. While contending with the same challenges as many other governors—getting scarce vaccine doses to tens of millions of residents, curtailing a growing unemployment rate, and preparing to run for reelection next year—Newsom has other problems his colleagues don’t share. Read more from Tiffany Stecker.

Ex-Sen. Roberts Joins Top Lobby Shop: Former Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who left Congress in January, has joined top lobby shop Capitol Counsel. Roberts will serve as a senior counselor to the firm’s clients, offering “his insights and advice about legislative strategy and his deep understanding of the executive branch,” the firm said in a release. Read more from Megan R. Wilson.

With assistance from Andrew Kreighbaum

To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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