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Dems tighten relief benefits, firm up support for virus bill

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to the media, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden and Democrats agreed to tighten eligibility limits for stimulus checks Wednesday, bowing to party moderates as leaders prepared to move their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill through the Senate.

At the same time, the White House and top Democrats stood by progressives and agreed that the Senate package would retain the $400 weekly emergency unemployment benefits included in the House-passed pandemic legislation. Moderates have wanted to trim those payments to $300 after Republicans have called the bill so heedlessly generous that it would prompt some people to not return to work.

The deal-making underscored the balancing act Democrats face as they try squeezing the massive relief measure through the evenly divided, 50-50 Senate. The package, Biden’s signature legislative priority, is his attempt to stomp out the year-old pandemic, revive an economy that’s shed 10 million jobs and bring some semblance of normality to countless upended lives.

Democrats have no choice but to broker compromises among themselves, thanks to their mere 10-vote House margin and a Senate they control only with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. The party’s moderate and progressive factions are competing to use their leverage, but without going so far as to scuttle an effort they all support.

“He’s pleased with the progress that is being made with the rescue plan,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of Biden, reflecting the flexibility he and all Democrats will need to prevail. “He’s always said he’s open to good ideas.”

So far, Republicans have presented a unified front against the bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he wants unanimous GOP opposition.

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, didn’t rule out breaking ranks and supporting the measure. She told reporters her state’s tourism industry has been walloped by the pandemic and said she’s talked to administration officials about “how this helps a state like Alaska.”

The Senate could begin debating the bill Thursday, but Democrats faced mountains of GOP amendments and other delays that could take days to plow through. The House will have to approve the Senate’s version before shipping it to Biden, which Democrats want to do before the last round of emergency jobless benefits run dry March 14.

“I would expect a very long night into the next day and keep going on,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., describing GOP plans to force votes.

Under the legislation, individuals earning up to $75,000, and couples up to $150,000, would get $1,400 checks per person. The House-approved version would gradually phase down that amount, with individuals making $100,000 and couples earning $200,000 receiving nothing.

Under Wednesday’s agreement, the Senate bill would instead halt the payments completely for individuals making $80,000 and couples earning $160,000, said a Democratic official, who described the agreement on condition of anonymity.

That means some people who received the last round of $600 relief checks approved in December wouldn’t get anything this time. The liberal Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated that the pared-down Senate eligibility levels means 280 million adults and children would receive stimulus checks, compared to 297 million people under the House plan.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, has favored lowering the relief check eligibility limits and opposed the House bill’s minimum wage increase. He suggested Wednesday he’d back the emerging Senate legislation, saying it “really does have enough good stuff that we should be able to make this work.”

In a swipe at moderates, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a leader of his chamber’s progressives, called the new phase-out of relief checks a “silly and stupid” effort to appease “the one or two people who can hold things up.”

Yet asked if the change could threaten the overall bill, Pocan said, “Let’s hope they don’t screw too many things up. We need to get this done.”

Liberals were already angry after Senate Democrats jettisoned the House bill’s minimum wage increase to $15 by 2025. They did so after the Senate parliamentarian said the chamber’s rules wouldn’t allow the boost in the bill and as Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said they’d oppose its inclusion, sealing its fate.

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