By ALAN FRAM, RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR and KEVIN FREKING
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are attacking the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package as too costly, economically damaging and overtly partisan, an all-angles attempt to derail new President Joe Biden’s top priority as it starts moving through a Congress his party controls only narrowly.
Four House committees worked Thursday on their pieces of sweeping legislation that would send $1,400 payments to many Americans. It would also provide hundreds of billions for state and local governments and to boost vaccination efforts, raise tax credits for children and increase unemployment benefits. Democratic leaders hope for House passage later this month, with Senate approval and a bill on Biden’s desk by mid-March.
“This is the moment,” said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., citing the pandemic’s human and economic toll.
As committees worked, Republicans proposed amendments spotlighting what they see as the legislation’s soft spots. Their themes were clear: Democrats are overspending, hurting workers and employers’ job markets, being too generous to some immigrants, inviting fraud and rewarding political allies — allegations that Democrats dismiss as ludicrous.
The proposals signaled that Biden’s plan faces solid Republican opposition in a House and Senate where Democrats have few votes to spare, while forcing Democrats to take positions that could tee up GOP campaign ads for the 2022 elections.
There were amendments to reduce the $400 extra in weekly jobless benefits Democrats want to provide through August and exempt the smallest businesses from Democrats’ plans to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 hourly from $7.25. Others would limit emergency grants for undergraduates to U.S. citizens and bar federal subsidies for some job-based health insurance to people without Social Security numbers, effectively targeting many immigrants.
Other GOP proposals would put strings on emergency funds to help schools reopen safely, requiring that schools offer in-person classes or give the money to parents for education savings accounts if they remain closed. Still others would make sure assistance for renters, homeowners and the airline industry didn’t extend long after the pandemic ends, and divide $26 billion for urban transportation systems between cities and rural areas, which many Republicans represent.
“I don’t know if the White House knows this, but you’re supposed to be creating jobs, not killing them,” said Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the Ways and Means panel. He said while his party has backed over $3 trillion in earlier pandemic relief bills, “whatever this rushed, partisan, special interest ‘stimulus’ package does, it comes with no bipartisan discussion, no opportunity for finding common ground.”
Biden campaigned on reuniting a country riven by President Donald Trump’s divisive four years. He met two weeks ago with 10 GOP senators to discuss the COVID-19 plan in a session that seemed cordial but has produced no visible movement.
Democrats say attempts to compromise with Republicans wasted time and resulted in a package that proved too small when President Barack Obama sought an economic stimulus compromise in 2009, his first year. They want to finish this initial Biden goal without any stumbles and before emergency jobless benefits expire on March 14.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a statement that Democrats were pushing “liberal wish-list policies” and accused them of “siding with teachers’ unions,” mostly Democratic-friendly organizations that have largely opposed reopening schools until they are safer.
McCarthy, eyeing 2022 elections that he hopes will make him speaker of a GOP-run House, suggested Republicans were ready to work to restore jobs, reopen schools and provide vaccines “to those who want it.” But he said Democrats’ “policy distractions will only make America weaker and bring our recovery to a halt.”
One by one, committees were rejecting GOP amendments, mostly on party-line votes. Democrats disputed Republican assertions that, for example, a proposed $400 weekly pandemic unemployment benefit was so generous it would discourage people from seeking jobs.
“The whole force of this amendment is to not, quote unquote, spoil people by giving them too much money,” said Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis. She said it suggested people who’ve lost jobs do not “deserve to live above a starvation-level wage.”
Even so, Republicans voiced concerns about the sheer size of the $1.9 trillion package. “Big doesn’t necessarily mean good,” said Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio. “Let’s go smart. Let’s go targeted and let’s solve the actual need.”
The Congressional Budget Office expects the economy to add an average of 521,000 jobs a month this year, a sign of robust hiring made possible in part by government aid. But those gains will likely hinge on containing the virus. Employers kicked off 2021 by adding a mere 49,000 jobs in January as deaths from the disease curbed economic activity.
Meanwhile, House Democrats unveiled new details of their plan.
The Energy and Commerce Committee’s section of the plan, exceeding $180 billion, would provide billions for COVID-19 vaccination, testing, contact tracing and treatments. It would invest $1.75 billion in “genomic sequencing,” or DNA mapping of virus samples, to identify potentially more dangerous coronavirus mutations and study how fast they are spreading.
It would also advance longstanding Democratic priorities like increasing coverage under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
It dangles a fiscal carrot in front of a dozen states, mainly in the South, that have not yet taken up the law’s Medicaid expansion to cover more low-income adults, proposing a temporary 5% increase in federal aid to states that newly expand the health care program for lower-income people.
Among the Medicaid expansion holdout states are major population centers like Texas, Florida and Georgia. Whether such a sweetener would be enough to start wearing down longstanding Republican opposition to Medicaid expansion is uncertain.