What to Know in Washington: Stimulus Faces Long Final Gauntlet

Senate Democrats face a gauntlet of Republican attempts to rein in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package in a marathon session of votes that will extend the timetable for passage into the weekend.

Democratic leaders plan to rough it through the amendment process and emerge with a bill that gets the votes of all 50 Democrats without risking a revolt from progressives in the House, which will have to agree on the Senate version before it goes to Biden for his signature.

The president has already agreed to revisions to keep moderate Senate Democrats on board, including narrowing the eligibility for direct payments to millions of Americans. Incentives have also been added, including more money for rural hospitals, health insurance subsidies for the unemployed and broadband.

But further changes are still possible. Even a single Democrat joining Republican efforts in the 50-50 Senate can defeat Biden’s proposal to increase the pandemic unemployment bonus from $300 to $400 a week, slash further the number of people eligible for $1,400 stimulus checks or strike any other provision in the bill.

“I think there’s at least a chance that one or two Democrats could join all of us and spend a little bit less,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a Fox News interview this week. He added he expects the final bill to pass on a party-line vote.

Still, Republicans are promising a raft of amendment votes, which could push consideration of the measure well into the weekend. Read more from Steven T. Dennis, Erik Wasson and Laura Litvan.

Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
McConnell walking to the Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.

What’s in the Senate Bill: Senate Democrats unveiled an updated measure ahead of consideration. A $15 federal minimum-wage mandate has been stripped from the bill and the eligibility rules for the $1,400 stimulus payments have been narrowed. The latest version of the bill adds a full subsidy for the health-insurance premiums of laid-off workers through September. Laura Davison highlights the changes.

For an in-depth look at everything that’s in the measure, read the BGOV Bill Summary by Naoreen Chowdhury, Michael Smallberg, Adam M. Taylor and Brittney Washington.

Business Loan Extension Pressed by Chamber and Allies: Hundreds of business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have launched an effort to extend the Paycheck Protection Program that’s intended to help small businesses hurt by the pandemic, and which expires at the end of the month. The Chamber sent a letter to key Senate leaders Wednesday requesting that Congress stretch the program through 2021. More than 670 other business organizations joined in. Read more from Megan R. Wilson.

Also Happening on the Hill

Biden Gets GOP Warning on Infrastructure: A key House Republican said he told Biden in a meeting yesterday that the president’s plan to rebuild U.S. infrastructure will lose Republican support if it adds to the deficit or delves into issues beyond roads and bridges such as energy sources. The House Transportation Committee’s ranking Republican Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said the coming legislation needs to also balance needs in rural areas with those in cities. Read more from Jennifer Epstein and Mario Parker.

Threats to Lawmakers Spur Request for Help: The head of U.S. Capitol Police yesterday asked the Defense Department to extend the National Guard presence at the U.S. Capitol, according to a statement from the police force. About 5,000 National Guard troops still on deployment in Washington since the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol were set to return home by March 12. The Capitol Police cited a spike in threats against lawmakers during the first two months of this year in the request for continued support from the Guard. The Capitol Police statement said only that acting Chief Yogananda Pittman asked for the extension without giving a specific timeframe. Read more from Billy House.

Biden Urged to Improve Food Box Program: Food bank operators and lawmakers are pushing the Biden administration for systematic changes to the federal food box program to help feed hungry Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. Nonprofit leaders also foresee a future need for continued government assistance, even when the nation finally recovers from Covid-19. “The nationwide network of food banks really are dependent upon government food right now,” said Pamela Irvine, president and CEO of Feeding Southwest Virginia. Read more from Megan U. Boyanton.

Hospital Debt-Collection Scrutiny: Aggressive, and often confusing, debt collection practices by hospitals are catching the attention of policymakers, who say there are no easy solutions to protecting patients and their families from years of legal battles over medical bills. The Senate Covid-19 relief package includes an expansion of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance subsidies, a move Democrats say will help Americans avoid going into medical debt. But that change would last only two years and wouldn’t help anyone currently in debt. Some consumer advocates and researchers say they aren’t waiting for federal lawmakers to act. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Committee Probes Opioid Companies Over Tax Breaks: The House Oversight and Reform Committee is probing whether executives at four drug companies intend to use a pandemic-related tax break to deduct payments of opioid settlements. Drug distributor Cardinal Health has said it plans to use a temporary tax break in the 2020 CARES Act that allows corporations to deduct losses, including those tied to legal settlements, to offset profits of previous years and generate a refund from the IRS. Read more from Laura Davison and Billy House.

Around the Administration

Biden Confronts Trump-Era Inertia in Trying to Shift Agencies: Interior Department staffers churned out dozens of drilling permits despite an order for upper-level review. The U.S. Postal Service spurned green alternatives and bought tens of thousands of gasoline-powered vehicles. And across the government, Donald Trump loyalists remain in influential positions. Biden is being defied by his own government as his ambitious plans to undo four years of Trump run into a harsh reality: The government lumbers on, slow to turn course even after an election. Cumbersome bureaucracy threatens his agenda on everything from fighting climate change to ending the coronavirus pandemic. Read more from Ari Natter and Todd Shields.

Biden Has Chance to Flip Second Circuit: Second Circuit Judge Peter Hall’s decision to take senior status yesterday opens the door for Biden to potentially flip the circuit back to a Democratic-appointed majority. Hall was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2004 by George W. Bush. Republican appointees filled seven of the circuit’s 13 seats before Hall took senior status, a form of semi-retirement. If Biden appoints his successor, Democratic appointees could reclaim that majority. The circuit was one that Trump flipped during his presidency. Read more from Madison Alder.

DOJ Asks Top Court to Dismiss Sanctuary City Cases: Biden’s administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to dismiss three pending appeals stemming from his predecessor’s efforts to block U.S. grants to cities and states that don’t assist in federal immigration enforcement. In joint filings with the court yesterday, Acting Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar indicated the new administration had resolved federal litigation with California, New York, and other places. Read more from Greg Stohr.

Racial Bias in Clinical Medicine Algorithms Targeted: HHS wants to better understand how clinical algorithms used to make decisions about patients’ care “may introduce bias” into that process. The HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which focuses on evidence in health care, issued a request for information yesterday on how algorithms are developed and how variables tied to race can impact health-care use, patient outcomes, and disparities. Read more from Shira Stein.

Pfizer Plant Helping Vaccines Has Quality Offenses: The factory that Pfizer plans to use to boost production of its Covid-19 vaccine was cited by federal inspectors last year for repeated quality-control violations. Food and Drug Administration inspectors visited the Kansas facility at the end of 2019 into January 2020, according to a report obtained by Bloomberg through a Freedom of Information request. They found the drug company released medications for sale after failing to thoroughly review quality issues that arose in routine testing, the report shows. Read more from Anna Edney.

UN Gets Embroiled in Myanmar Crisis: The United Nations has turned into another battleground over the military coup in Myanmar, with the country’s anti-junta ambassador in New York refusing to give up his seat and the military’s actions coming under Security Council scrutiny. The continuing crisis in the Southeast Asian nation will be the focus of a closed-door Security Council meeting today. It’s an early leadership test for U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who was confirmed to her post last week and holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council for March. Read more from David Wainer, Khine Lin Kyaw and Philip J. Heijmans.

Biden’s New Helicopter Could Still Scorch Lawn: Biden may have to wait months longer to ride on a new Marine One helicopter because the aircraft designed by Lockheed Martin continues to pose a risk of scorching the South Lawn of the White House. The Marine Corps and company officials say they hope to identify potential solutions as soon as June to the unsightly problem of burned grass caused by spinning rotors and engine exhaust, which has bedeviled the chopper for two years. Read more from Tony Capaccio.

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