Uphill: Breaking Down the Stimulus Behemoth

How much spending is there in Biden's signature coronavirus aid package? How much time have you got?

Good morning from Washington, where Democrats are aiming for final passage of their nearly $2 trillion coronavirus aid package this week. If you’re waiting on your stimulus check, it’s likely to be on its way in the coming days.

Coronavirus Aid Details

I’ve avoided doing a more comprehensive breakdown of the stimulus bill until now, knowing important details of the legislation would likely change after it passed from the House to the Senate. The Senate did make some key changes, including stripping out the House’s $15 per hour federal minimum wage provisions and reducing unemployment benefits. 

It’s possible, of course, that progressives in the House could still take issue with the final version of the bill, jeopardizing its passage. But given the sense of urgency Democrats feel to move quickly on the package and the statements we’ve seen so far from members focusing on the sweeping priorities that made the cut, that appears unlikely. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said over the weekend that “any weakening of the House provisions were bad policy and bad politics,” but she also described the final Senate changes as “relatively minor concessions” and expressed her support for the overall legislation.

“The American Rescue Plan has retained its core bold, progressive elements originally proposed by President Joe Biden and passed in the House relief package,” Jayapal said.

The House is expected to vote on the bill as soon as today, but that timing may be pushed to later in the week because final text from the Senate has been delayed. After that, it will go to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.

So, what’s in the bill?

Stimulus checks.

The bill will send checks of $1,400 to many American adults, including an additional $1,400 per dependent. This now includes adult dependents who did not receive prior rounds of checks. Single filers who made up to $75,000 and couples who earned up to $150,000 in their most recent tax filings will receive the full $1,400 check. The final Senate bill phases out the checks quickly after this point, reaching zero for single filers who earned more than $80,000 and couples who made more than $160,000. The cutoff in the House bill had been more generous: $100,000 for single filers and $200,000 for couples. Singles who made between $80,000 and $100,000 and couples who made between $160,000 and $200,000 will now be excluded.

(The Washington Post has a useful calculator to predict how much you’ll receive from the stimulus checks here.)

Unemployment benefits.

The legislation extends federal unemployment benefits through September 6 at a rate of $300 per week. The benefits had been set to expire March 14. The bill also retroactively makes the first $10,200 of unemployment payments tax-free for households who made less than $150,000 in 2020. That change came as many Americans who had been newly receiving unemployment payments—which are treated as taxable income—have received tax bills they didn’t know to anticipate. The House bill had been more generous with the weekly payments, providing $400 per week rather than $300. But it would have expired a little earlier, on August 29, and it did not include the tax provisions.

(Richard Rubin at the Wall Street Journal took a look yesterday at how retroactive changes to the tax provisions could be a challenge for the IRS to keep up with, having already received more than 45 million tax returns. Some of those will now have to be changed.)

Child tax credit expansion.

The aid package raises the child tax credit for most Americans from the current $2,000 to $3,000 for kids aged 6 to 17, setting it even higher for children under the age of 6 at $3,600. The credit will now be fully refundable instead of partly refundable, allowing low-income families who might not pay that much in taxes to receive the entire amount. One key change: Half of the credit will be paid in monthly installments to recipients beginning in July rather than a lump-sum as part of a tax refund. This expansion of the credit is enshrined in the legislation for only one year, after which Congress will have to decide again how to address it. Sen. Mitt Romney has proposed a permanent alternative, and he is expected to continue to push for it ahead of the new expansion’s expiration.

(The Washington Post has another nifty calculator to estimate how much you’ll receive under the bill here.)

Earned income tax credit boost

The plan increases the earned income tax credit for childless workers, increasing the maximum amount from $543 to $1,502. In addition, the legislation expands eligibility for the credit, with the minimum age beginning at 19 instead of 25. It also strikes the previous upper age limit of 65. These changes, like the child tax credit expansion, are set in place for only one year.

State and local governments.

The bill includes $350 billion for states, territories, tribal and local governments, $130.2 billion of which will be dedicated to cities and counties. The Senate also set aside $10 billion for state infrastructure projects like improving broadband. There are some limits on how the state and local funding can be used. It won’t be available to fund pensions, for instance.  

Republicans and some economists have questioned the need for such a large funding pool for state and local governments, pointing to better than expected state tax revenues this year. 

Funding for vaccines, testing, and more.

The plan allocates billions of dollars to vaccine distribution, manufacturing, and development. Of that, $7.5 billion will go to the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote and distribute coronavirus vaccines. HHS will also receive $47.8 billion to help with testing and monitoring of the virus. The legislation calls on the secretary of HHS to use the funds to “implement a national, evidence-based strategy for testing, contact tracing, surveillance, and mitigation” of COVID. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will receive $1 billion to strengthen vaccine confidence in the United States and to share information about the vaccines with the public. The legislation also directs $750 million to the CDC to combat the spread of coronavirus and to address other emerging disease threats around the globe. Another $500 million is targeted toward modernizing the CDC’s data surveillance and analytics infrastructure, which could help with disease warning systems and tracking coronavirus hotspots.

The Food and Drug Administration will also receive $500 million to go toward evaluating coronavirus vaccines and therapies.

Money for education.

The bill includes about $130 billion for K-12 schools and about $39.6 billion for higher education. The money is directed toward helping schools accommodate pandemic guidelines like social distancing and ventilation, and hiring more janitors, among other purposes. The aid is spread out over time, something Republicans have condemned. They have also decried the fact that the funding for schools is not related to any requirements that schools move to reopen. Per the Washington Post, the Senate version of the package set aside $1.25 billion for summer education activities and another $1.25 billion for after-school programs.

Pensions bailout.

The legislation includes $86 billion to bail out an expected 185 (but potentially more than 300) multiemployer union pension plans that are close to collapse. The money will be enough to pay hundreds of thousands of retirees their full pensions for the next 30 years, according to the New York Times. The massive bailout has been criticized because it does not require the plans to pay back the government funding or include policies that would address the root causes of their instability.

Restaurants.

The restaurant industry will receive $28.6 billion in aid, structured in grants that won’t have to be repaid as long as the funding is used for expenses such as payroll, rent, utilities, supplies, and paid sick leave. The size of the grants will depend on revenue impacts in 2020 compared to 2019 revenues; restaurants will be able to receive up to $5 million per physical location. And $5 billion of the restaurant fund is dedicated to businesses that made $500,000 or less in revenue in 2019. Under the bill, music clubs and other venues will also be eligible for a separate $1.25 billion in grants.

Affordable Care Act changes.

The package expands eligibility for federal Affordable Care Act subsidies to more Americans for two years. It also limits the maximum amount enrollees would pay for coverage to 8.5 percent of their income, rather than the current limit of nearly 10 percent. The legislation also eliminates premiums for some low-income Americans. People who lose their jobs but want to keep their employer’s health coverage through the stopgap option COBRA will also qualify to pay no premiums through September.

Small business loans.

Small businesses will continue to benefit from loans and grants under the legislation, with $15 billion dedicated to the Emergency Injury Disaster Loan program under the Small Business Administration. The bill also includes additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, which is taking applications for a second round of funding. The bill makes some nonprofit organizations eligible for PPP money that had not been included in prior coronavirus relief packages.

Rent help.

The package includes around $20 billion for state and local governments to assist low-income residents with rent and utilities. That adds to the $25 billion in rent assistance that was passed in the previous relief package in December. The new bill also provides $10 billion for homeowners who need assistance paying mortgages, utilities, and property taxes. 

These provisions and the ones mentioned above are just some key components of the overall package. There are many more items included in the bill, which is one of the largest relief measures Congress has ever considered. The bill is expected to pass narrowly in the House, without any Republican support.

Filibuster Watch

With their first legislative priority on its way to final passage this week, Democrats are looking to the future. They have a slew of ambitious goals, but with only 50 votes in the Senate, there are many items they simply aren’t able to advance without Republican support under the chamber’s current rules. That’s because the Senate has a 60-vote threshold for passage of most bills. Known as the filibuster, Republicans can use the procedural hurdle while in the minority to block bills they don’t support. Democrats would have to persuade 10 Republicans on a given bill in order to pass it over the filibuster. That’s why they used budget reconciliation, a special process that bypasses the 60-vote threshold, to pass the coronavirus relief legislation. But reconciliation can be used only sparingly because of its procedural requirements–experts say the option is most likely available to Democrats only two more times before the 2022 midterm elections—and it has stricter rules about what kind of provisions can be included. 

Many congressional Democrats have expressed openness to changing the Senate rules and potentially doing away with the 60-vote threshold altogether to open up their options for major priorities like election reform, criminal justice legislation, and raising the federal minimum wage. Republicans have had members of their own party, including former President Donald Trump, push for a similar move in the past, but Senate GOP leaders resisted it when they were in the majority.

Ending the filibuster in this Congress would require only 50 votes, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as tiebreaker. Democrats don’t have enough support to do that yet: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have both expressed opposition to scrapping the rule. Manchin has been especially adamant about his position, telling reporters in colorful terms recently that he will never support ending the filibuster.

But Manchin said during interviews with Fox News and NBC over the weekend that he might be open to a different change. 

“The filibuster should be painful. It really should be painful, and we’ve made it more comfortable over the years,” he said. “Maybe it has to be more painful.”

He said the Senate could make senators “stand there and talk” if they are filibustering a bill. “I’m willing to look at any way we can, but I’m not willing to take away the involvement of the minority,” he added. 

Moving to such a “talking filibuster” would mean dramatic changes for the institution: Members of the minority party would be able to filibuster a bill only as long as they are willing to speak on the floor. If they eventually give up, the Senate would proceed with considering the legislation with a simple majority vote. Manchin has supported a similar move in the past, but his recent remarks showed Democrats itching for a rules change how they could take a more targeted approach than simply eliminating the filibuster altogether. 

Experts have shared doubts about the idea, though. Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, emphasized that Republicans would be able to hold the Senate floor for a long time if they wanted to under such a rules change. While that unfolds, he said, the Senate would not be able to address any other business.

“The downside of any talking filibuster is that it destroys your ability to dual-track,” Glassman wrote. “And then you are right back to hoping you can wait people out while the rest of your agenda withers.”

Some Democrats, like Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, have instead suggested changing the Senate rules to carve out exceptions to the 60-vote threshold for voting and civil rights-related measures.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn has also said Democrats cannot allow the filibuster to prevent their election reform plans.

“There’s no way under the sun that in 2021 that we are going to allow the filibuster to be used to deny voting rights. That just ain’t gonna happen. That would be catastrophic,” Clyburn said over the weekend in an interview with The Guardian. “If Manchin and Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights.”

It’s clear for now that the party is headed toward a showdown on the issue. President Biden has pushed back on calls for rules changes. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Biden’s preference is “not to make changes to the filibuster rules.”

“He believes, with the current structure, he can work with Democrats and Republicans to get business done,” she said.

On the Floor

The Senate will vote this week on several Cabinet nominations. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has teed up floor action on Rep. Marcia Fudge’s nomination to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Judge Merrick Garland is also set to receive a confirmation vote for his nomination to be attorney general. And the Senate will consider Michael Regan to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The House will take up the Senate version of the coronavirus aid package this week. Members will also consider two gun bills, including the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which would expand background checks to many private firearm transfers. The bill is not expected to receive much Republican support: It has only three GOP cosponsors, alongside 128 Democrats. The House will also vote on legislation introduced by Clyburn intended to close a loophole that enabled the white supremacist who killed nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, to obtain a weapon in 2015 even though he should have been blocked from buying a gun. 

Key Hearings

  • The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s acting director and executive assistant director for cybersecurity will appear before a House Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday at 10 a.m. to speak on modernizing the federal approach to cybersecurity. 

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. about the Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities. It will be his first committee appearance since being confirmed to the role. 

  • U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is scheduled to testify before the House Appropriations subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government on Thursday at 2 p.m. 

  • House Appropriations Committee staff director and clerk Shalanda Young will testify before the Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday afternoon. She is Biden’s nominee to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, although House Democratic leaders have called on Biden to nominate her to the top role at OMB instead now that Neera Tanden has withdrawn from consideration. 

Of Note 

Sen. Roy Blunt won’t run for reelection, marking fifth Senate GOP retirement

Capitol Police, D.C. National Guard leaders need emergency authority to act, review finds

Greene and Freedom Caucus members force delay on votes for non-controversial legislation

‘Check partisanship at the door’: Biden finds GOP allies for rescue money

House progressives back revised COVID-19 aid bill as vote nears

Chamber of Commerce declines to rebuke members of Congress who voted to overturn 2020 election