President Joe Biden is forging ahead with his plan to provide $1.9 trillion in additional coronavirus pandemic relief.
One bit of aid for individuals — $1,400 stimulus checks — could be subject to further negotiation.
Meanwhile, another initiative, raising the $15 per hour federal minimum wage, seems to be off the table for now. And enhanced unemployment is facing a March expiration date.
The House of Representatives wants to pass the coronavirus relief bill in the next two weeks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said. The Senate last week approved a budget resolution that would fast-track the additional Covid relief with a 51-50 vote (with the Vice President being the tie-breaker.)
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The new aid package seems to have one quality that’s rare on Capitol Hill these days: momentum, according to Ed Mills, Washington policy analyst at Raymond James.
A big reason for that is Democrats are using budget reconciliation to secure the aid package, which will allow the measure to pass with a narrow majority.
“It’s not yet a done deal,” Mills said. “But certainly there is more unification among Democrats than I have really ever seen and a sense of urgency that usually doesn’t exist.”
Even so, Americans who are eager to receive more direct payments from the government may have to wait a little while longer.
“We’re looking at an early March timetable of getting something signed into law, if everything works correctly,” Mills said.
In recent days, Biden has said he will not back down on the $1,400 sums he promised Americans.
The additional checks are aimed at bringing recent direct payments to $2,000 in total, including $600 authorized by Congress in December.
But the president has signaled he is open to changing eligibility requirements.
“We need to target that money, so folks making $300,000 don’t get any windfall,” Biden said in an update on the economy on Friday.
The first two sets of stimulus checks have had the same income thresholds in order to qualify. Individuals who earn up to $75,000 and married couples with income of up to $150,000 receive full payments. The checks are then gradually phased out for those above those levels.
But if the phase-out rate stays the same, more people could qualify for reduced $1,400 checks. That could be resolved by either changing that rate or setting lower income thresholds.
A group of Republican senators has called for making full payments available to individuals making up to $40,000 and married couples who earn up to $80,000, while capping the checks at $50,000 and $100,000 for those groups, respectively.
This weekend, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in an interview that while he supports stronger caps so that people making $300,000 per year do not receive the aid, it would be “absurd” to prevent someone making $52,000 from getting a check.
Research from the Tax Foundation has found the $1,400 checks could be further targeted: by lowering the caps or by increasing the phase down rate.
Another change would be to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
The current rate, $7.25, has not increased since 2009.
But questions have come up as to whether increasing pay can be included in reconciliation, a process focused on the budget and related items.
“I don’t think it’s going to survive,” Biden said of the proposed pay hike in an interview that aired this weekend.
The president did, however, indicate he plans to push for a standalone bill to raise the minimum wage.
Lawmakers face a deadline to authorize more aid because enhanced federal unemployment benefits are set to expire on March 14.
Biden’s plan calls for extending additional unemployment payments of $400 per week through September.
From there, the White House will likely try to build a bridge to full employment, Mills said.
Additional legislation could be developed in the second half of the year and passed around Christmas, he predicts. That measure would likely focus more on the economy than Covid.
“But for individual assistance, this is very likely the last major package,” Mills said.