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Joe Biden spoke to House Democrats on a conference call on Wednesday to urge them to continue backing his $1.9trn Covid relief plan, a wide-ranging proposal that has been taking weeks to wend its way towards the legislative finish line.
The president repeatedly thanked the caucus for passing the House version of the massive relief package last week, touting its broad appeal among American voters from across the political spectrum.
“It’s good policy,” Mr Biden said, “and it’s good politics.”
After a public round of fawning introductory remarks from Mr Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the president threw on the cloak of privacy to field questions from members gathered virtually for the House Democrats’ annual retreat. The Q&A comes as many progressives have openly criticised the legislation for perceived shortcomings on stimulus checks, the weekly amount of the Covid-era federal unemployment insurance supplement, and other areas.
In his opening remarks, Mr Biden repeatedly assured House Democrats, whose biennial election cycle means they’re always in campaign mode, that sticking by the Covid relief plan would not only help millions of struggling Americans through the remainder of the coronavirus pandemic, but also earn them long-lasting political capital.
“People are going to remember how we showed up in this moment, how we listened to them,” the president insisted. “I think that people’s memories will be long.”
Mr Biden cited public polling that shows nearly three-quarters of Americans support his administration’s $1.9trn proposal that, among several other landmark items, includes $1,400 stimulus checks for most taxpayers, re-ups and boosts the federal unemployment supplement programme, and provides hundreds of billions of dollars to state and local governments struggling to meet the challenges of the pandemic.
Mr Biden acknowledged that some Democratic lawmakers, especially progressives, may not be 100 per cent satisfied with the final bill’s contours once Senate and House negotiators sit down to hammer out a reconciled, uniform bill.
“We’re all making some small compromises, but I want to thank you,” the president said.
Since the House passed its initial version of the legislation last week, the White House and a group of moderate Democratic senators have ironed out a compromise to phase out the size of stimulus payments for people making over $75,000 annually, cutting off the benefit completely for anyone making $80,000 or more.
The proposal would prevent 12m Americans and 5m children from receiving any direct payment, according to an analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a liberal think-tank.
Roughly 280m Americans would still qualify for direct payments.
The Senate’s proposed plan tweaks the version passed by the House, which set eligibility for individuals who have earned up to $75,000 and would scale down the size of the payments before phasing out entirely for people who reported $100,000 or more in annual incomes.
“Conservative Dems have fought so the Biden admin sends fewer [and] less generous relief checks than the Trump admin did,” said New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s a move that makes little-to-no political or economic sense, and targets an element of relief that is most tangibly felt by everyday people. An own-goal.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said Mr Biden is “comfortable” with where negotiations stand and “unmoveable” on the size of the payments, adding that “he has been very clear that the threshold should be at $75,000 and $150,000 for families.”
“But he also knows that the sausage-making machine almost always spits out a different package than what was negotiated initially,” she said.
Senate Democrats had planned to vote on their own Covid relief package this week. But with 20 hours of scheduled debate, Republicans planning on forcing a readout of the entire bill (which could take up to 10 additional hours), and what is known as a “vote-a-rama” on amendments, the process could drag into Sunday.
Even when the Senate does pass its bill, which is expected to happen on a mostly party-line vote, leaders and conferees from both chambers must meet next week to negotiate a uniform compromise package that is palatable to a vast range of Democrats — from House progressives such as Ms Ocasio-Cortez to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin III.
Mr Manchin expressed optimism about the final bill’s prospects in an interview with Politico on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be a good package that’s going to help an awful lot of people. And it’s targeted. The main thing is, it’s targeted to get to people in need,” he said.