By Kristina Peterson and Andrew Duehren
WASHINGTON -- President Biden and Democratic allies on Monday worked to iron out the remaining disputes over the coronavirus relief package that they hope to push through the Senate this week, despite left-wing frustrations over the exclusion of a minimum-wage increase.
Senate Democrats, who had tried over the weekend to salvage a more limited wage increase through the tax code, scrapped that backup plan late Sunday. With that off the table, Mr. Biden spoke with a group of Senate Democrats about advancing the rest of the bill, as the party works to pass its agenda with narrow majorities in both chambers.
Some of the members of the Democratic caucus who met virtually with Mr. Biden said the discussion focused on targeting some of the bill's aid.
"There really isn't a lot of dispute about the overall size of the bill, " Sen. Angus King (I., Maine), said after the meeting. "The question is whether it can be targeted in such a way as to better serve the people who need the most and perhaps free up funds for other priorities."
Some Democrats have been focusing on how the $350 billion in funding for state and local governments is allocated. Others have pressed to shift the current income thresholds for the $1,400 direct checks that many Americans would get under the bill so that fewer upper-middle-class families get money. Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.) said some changes would likely be made through amendments but would amount to modest alterations to the bill.
Where the minimum-wage issue goes from here is up in the air. Mr. Biden and Senate Democratic leaders made clear that a gradual increase in the federal pay floor to $15 an hour from the current $7.25, passed as part of the $1.9 trillion House legislation early Saturday, wouldn't happen in this bill. That eased tensions with Senate centrists who opposed the $15 wage but put new pressure on progressives to swallow their disappointment and coalesce around the president. One prominent House progressive hedged Monday about whether she would vote for the relief bill without the wage boost when the legislation comes back from the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Monday that he expected "a hearty debate and some late nights," as the chamber begins its debate on the package this week.
In addition to the $1,400 payment to many Americans and funding for state and local governments, the relief package would extend and enhance federal unemployment assistance; expand a child tax credit; and pour new funding into vaccine distribution, food stamps and schools.
Republicans have said that the aid package is too broad and pressed Democrats to wait to see where more funds are needed after Congress passed nearly $4 trillion in relief efforts since the pandemic began.
"Democrats have chosen to go a completely partisan route," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said on the Senate floor Monday.
The Senate parliamentarian said that a minimum-wage increase didn't comply with the rules on reconciliation, the process that the party is using to pass the bill. Liberal Democrats have been urging Senate leaders to ignore the parliamentarian's advice and retain the wage boost.
"We can't let a parliamentarian decision stop a wage increase for Americans," Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.) said on a call with reporters Monday.
The White House said it wouldn't support taking that step.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.), chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she would need to review the bill in its final form before voting on it without the wage boost. "We have to look and make sure it is not weakened in any way," she said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), who as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee led the effort to persuade the parliamentarian to allow the wage provision, said Monday that Democrats should disregard her ruling. He said he planned to force a vote on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, though that effort will likely fail given the opposition from centrist Democrats.
"The president talks about the soul of the country, this is the soul of the Democratic Party. The minimum wage has to go to be raised to a living wage," Mr. Sanders said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has indicated that if it wasn't part of the Senate's bill, she would move to bring up stand-alone legislation increasing the wage to $15 an hour. But that would need 60 votes in the Senate, where Republicans have shown some willingness to increase the wage from $7.25, but most have balked at the $15 level.
The prospect of a stand-alone bill could spark negotiation with Republicans to see if a compromise could be reached on adjusting the federal wage, potentially at a level below $15 an hour.
"I am very, very optimistic that we will find another path," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) said Monday. "Even though we may not have the votes right now, there will be another path."
If a bipartisan agreement can't be reached, liberal Democrats signaled they will intensify their push to eliminate the 60-vote threshold most legislation still requires.
"The only reason that we're in this mess is because of the filibuster," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), who has called for scrapping the filibuster for years. "If we would get rid of the filibuster, then we wouldn't have to keep trying to force the camel through the eye of the needle."
Alex Leary contributed to this article.
Write to Kristina Peterson at email@example.com and Andrew Duehren at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 01, 2021 20:12 ET (01:12 GMT)Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.