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Congress' Covid relief negotiations: Stimulus talks get into full swing

Unemployment benefits will be...

Posted: Feb 15, 2021 9:46 AM
Updated: Feb 15, 2021 9:47 AM

Unemployment benefits will begin to lapse for millions of American In less than a month, putting the pressure squarely on Congress -- and Democratic leader s-- to usher through a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill.

The next four weeks will test Democratic unity and require the party's progressives and moderates to put aside clear philosophical differences over the scope of what is needed for the recovery right now. It will also cement a reality for President Joe Biden: his first major push in Congress isn't going to be a bipartisan one. Instead, a process is fully underway that will allow Democrats to pass this bill through the Senate with just 51 votes.

Bottom line: Congress is out this week, but the quiet work of pulling together the Democrats' opening offer at Covid relief continues this week with the House on track to pass their portion of the $1.9 trillion proposal as soon as next week.

In the next few days, the House Budget Committee will put together the final bill based off of the section by sections that committees passed last week. This will ensure Democrats are in a place to be able to get the caucus on board and pass the bill as soon as next week.

The immediate obstacles

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a five-vote margin on this bill. This isn't spring 2020, when the economy was cratering and the uncertainty of the virus was so paralyzing for the country that lawmakers came together in a matter of weeks to pass the largest stimulus bill in history with unity. The scrutiny on this package -- even by some Democrats -- is more intense. That doesn't mean that a few Republicans won't cross the aisle and vote for it, giving Pelosi perhaps more room to move the legislation on the floor, but watch members comments over the next several days while they are home on recess to get a clue for how much a lift this is going to be for the House speaker.

The Senate problem

In the last several weeks, House Democrats haven't been working in a vacuum as they transformed Biden's proposal into legislative text. Senate Democratic aides from the Finance Committee have been consulting with House Ways and Means panel. The Senate's HELP Committee has been working closely with the House Education and Labor panel. Aides have been in close contact and Democratic senators have made it clear -- both through private nudging and public comments -- what they need in the House bill to make it workable on their side.

Still, House and Senate Democrats aren't in complete unity right now. The expectation is that changes to the House bill will happen in the Senate, but not in a formal committee mark up like last week in the House. Instead, the current plan for Democrats is to bring their bill -- with some potential changes that have been ironed out privately-- directly to the Senate floor. That could happen as the week of March 2. But, Democrats in the Senate will have two weeks to pass their bill before unemployment benefits lapse. And, if they pass a different bill than the House, the House will have to pass it again before March 14.

For those counting at home, that is 27 days -- less than a month -- to figure this out.

In that time, Senate Democrats will need to settle a series of intra-party debates over the scope of this bill, whether they are all willing to spend $1.9 trillion, whether they are willing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, whether they are satisfied with the House's guardrails on stimulus checks that give individuals making $75,000 and couples making $100,000 the full $1,400 while phasing out the check amount faster for higher earning Americans.

Democrats have largely tried to talk about these issues privately and most are likely to vote for whatever comes to the floor given the expectation that giving Americans additional financial benefits is going to be popular. One Democratic senator told CNN last week, "Look, I am voting for this no matter what." But the next three weeks could test Democratic unity in a way we haven't seen for a long time.

The minimum wage fight

When Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, was up to become the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, no one in leadership necessarily expected Democrats would be controlling a 50-50 Senate where what Democrats want and what they have to do to legislate are potentially in conflict.

The events of January 5 turned the Senate dynamics on their head, and Sanders' role on the panel now as chairman has inevitably pushed the Senate Democratic caucus further left on some key issues. His staff has been expanded to include old Senate hands with a specialty in navigating arcane Senate rules like reconciliation. Add on top of that the fact that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is up for reelection in the state of New York next year and cognizant of potential primary challengers (including an energetic House sophomore with a history of unseating powerful members of leadership) and well, the dynamics of who has power in these negotiations look very different than they might have two years ago.

Right now, nothing is encapsulating these dynamics more clearly than the fight over the minimum wage.

The people to watch: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has made it clear that she will not vote for a Senate Covid relief bill that includes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

"Kyrsten is working to ensure a next relief bill is laser-focused on addressing Arizona's immediate needs and believes all proposals not related to those immediate needs — like the minimum wage increase — must be excluded from the package," her spokesman said in a statement to CNN last week.

Without Sinema, the Senate cannot pass the Covid relief bill even using the budget process that allows them to pass it with just 51 votes. Schumer has no margin for error. And Sinema's threat could imperil the entire bill. Not to mention, she is not the only one who has privately expressed concerns about raising the minimum wage in this proposal. Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, is also opposed to including this. Whether it would imperil his vote is not as clear.

While Schumer has repeatedly said that he's working closely with Sanders to try to push it through, other members of Democratic leadership are more sober about the dynamic.

Asked what it would take to include the minimum wage, the Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, told reporters last week "I don't know what it will take, but I've heard serious questions asked by some Democratic members that are going to have to be resolved."

In other words, right now the issue of raising the minimum wage could seriously endanger this Covid relief proposal. Include it, you lose at least one moderate senator. Leave it behind, you risk losing progressives.

One potential way out of this minimum wage fight

It's very possible that the issue of raising the minimum wage doesn't pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian. That could save Democrats the pain of having to make this call for themselves.

In order to move a bill using reconciliation, the Senate parliamentarian reviews each provision with the staff to ensure it meets a set of specific set of criteria. One of those criteria is that it must not just have an incidental impact on the budget. In other words, the proposal cannot do something else, but then just happen to have a budget impact. It's supposed to only be in the bill if its purpose is to impact the budget. During the fight over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, a lot of provisions over abortion rights language were stripped from the GOP's bill because the parliamentarian argued they didn't have a direct budget impact.

But, then again the parliamentarian allowed drilling in ANWR to be included in the GOP's tax bill in 2017. In other words, we should not be predicting one way or another if the $15 minimum wage would survive. Sanders' has hired staff specifically to help him navigate this review by the parliamentarian known as the Byrd bath, named after the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who came up with the rule to stop either side from abusing the reconciliation process and trying to use it to just pass legislation that bypassed a filibuster.

Those talks are already well underway now. But, it is possible that the Senate parliamentarian will be the one to actually pull the plug on the issue, saving Democrats from having to make the call themselves and risk losing votes.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 338079

Reported Deaths: 7523
CountyCasesDeaths
Hinds23409440
DeSoto23069280
Harrison20064328
Rankin15119290
Jackson14743251
Madison10806227
Lee10568179
Jones8864169
Forrest8408159
Lauderdale7684243
Lowndes6917151
Lamar683789
Lafayette6502124
Washington5551139
Pearl River5060150
Bolivar4923134
Oktibbeha484798
Panola4739112
Warren4690127
Marshall4670106
Pontotoc442873
Monroe4293137
Union429179
Neshoba4232181
Hancock417788
Lincoln4148116
Pike3605113
Leflore3587125
Tate351488
Alcorn346474
Sunflower344994
Adams338488
Scott336676
Yazoo335673
Simpson319290
Copiah319068
Itawamba312480
Coahoma311585
Tippah300568
Prentiss295063
Covington287183
Marion281780
Leake281575
Wayne274643
Grenada267588
George266251
Newton258964
Tishomingo238070
Winston236284
Jasper227548
Attala223373
Stone219437
Chickasaw217560
Holmes197674
Clay194654
Clarke184480
Tallahatchie182742
Calhoun179432
Smith177535
Yalobusha170240
Walthall144448
Lawrence140026
Greene137634
Amite135643
Noxubee134235
Perry132438
Montgomery131544
Carroll125431
Webster119132
Jefferson Davis114234
Tunica113227
Benton105925
Claiborne104831
Kemper101429
Humphreys99833
Franklin86723
Quitman84319
Choctaw81819
Wilkinson76532
Jefferson70428
Sharkey51618
Issaquena1736
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 574737

Reported Deaths: 11492
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson839571589
Mobile46611857
Madison36938532
Tuscaloosa26841465
Shelby26769255
Montgomery25853624
Baldwin24213326
Lee16897181
Calhoun15210332
Morgan14990289
Etowah14721369
Marshall12855235
Houston11661292
Elmore10727217
St. Clair10587250
Limestone10535158
Cullman10323204
Lauderdale10044253
DeKalb9335191
Talladega8797187
Walker7659286
Autauga7456114
Jackson7295117
Blount7233139
Colbert6614142
Coffee6117131
Dale5393117
Russell467742
Chilton4666117
Covington4623125
Franklin447281
Tallapoosa4420157
Escambia425282
Chambers3880125
Dallas3707163
Clarke366462
Marion3413106
Pike326979
Lawrence3211101
Winston293972
Bibb282965
Geneva274283
Marengo259067
Barbour245161
Pickens239662
Butler237672
Hale232378
Fayette225064
Henry206645
Randolph196144
Monroe195041
Cherokee194548
Washington179339
Macon168352
Crenshaw165058
Clay163659
Cleburne159945
Lamar149738
Lowndes144854
Wilcox129831
Bullock126042
Conecuh119530
Coosa116729
Perry109928
Sumter108732
Greene98336
Choctaw63925
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 95° Lo: 77°
Feels Like: 83°
Columbus
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 95° Lo: 74°
Feels Like: 84°
Oxford
Partly Cloudy
75° wxIcon
Hi: 94° Lo: 74°
Feels Like: 75°
Starkville
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 95° Lo: 74°
Feels Like: 84°
Thursday will be another very hot and very humid day across Mississippi and Alabama. Many areas will be well above 100 degrees with the heat index, some even as high as 120 degrees in the Delta of Mississippi.
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