US Congress passes huge Covid relief plan worth $1.9 trillion
The US Congress passed Joe Biden's enormous economic relief package Wednesday, delivering a resounding victory for the president and giving what he called a "fighting chance" to millions of families and businesses suffering during the coronavirus pandemic.
The $1.9 trillion plan, months in the making, is one of the largest US rescue packages ever. It will dramatically impact every aspect of the world's biggest economy for years to come while protecting and expanding the country's social safety net.
Democrats say they have met a historic moment of crisis head-on, funneling federal dollars into vaccine distribution, stimulus checks of up to $1,400 to most Americans, extended unemployment benefits for millions and an expansion of government funding for health care.
The measure only narrowly passed the House of Representatives by a 220-211 vote, with zero support from Republicans, who accuse Biden of abandoning his Inauguration Day pledge to unify a divided nation.
But as Republicans stood in opposition, progressive and moderate Democrats locked arms and marched the measure across the finish line days before critical unemployment benefits were set to expire.
The bill now heads to the White House, where Biden -- who made the American Rescue Plan his top legislative priority -- said he will sign the measure into law on Friday.
"This legislation is about giving the backbone of this nation -- the essential workers, the working people who built this country, the people who keep this country going -- a fighting chance," the president said in a post-vote statement.
At a presentation with vaccine makers, Biden went on to call the bill a "historic victory for the American people" and said "there's a real reason for hope" in beating back the pandemic.
- 'Critical moment' -
Minutes earlier, loud cheers and applause rose from the floor when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared the measure passed.
"This is a critical moment in our country's history," the top congressional Democrat said. "Help is on the way -- for the people, for the children."
The bill extends eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, pours billions of dollars into state and local governments, provides help for small businesses, increases food aid and sets aside $130 billion for schools.
And Democrats argue that the bill's child tax credit expansion would slash child poverty by up to 50 percent.
But Republican lawmakers attacked what they called the bill's "socialist agenda" and massive cost, saying more than 90 percent does not go to directly combatting Covid-19.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the plan "a long laundry list of left-wing priorities that predate the pandemic and do not meet the needs of the American families."
"This is by far one of the worst pieces of legislation I've seen in the Senate," he said. The bill passed the upper chamber Saturday along strict party lines.
Americans outside Washington appear to see it very differently, as polls show overwhelming bipartisan support for the bill.
- Selling it -
Nevertheless, Biden is signaling that he will soon hit the road on a mission to sell the package to the American people.
On Tuesday, Biden visited a business billed as Washington's oldest hardware store, which has benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program begun under Donald Trump's administration to help businesses stay afloat during the crisis.
The administration is continuing the program, but Biden said it will be tailored to focus on businesses with 20 employees or fewer.
The last congressional plan to fight the coronavirus, which has to date left more than 528,000 dead in the United States and brought the economy to its knees, was enacted in December.
It expanded unemployment payments and extended them through March 14.
That deadline has loomed as Biden and Democrats crafted their latest package, but the new measure is set to extend the benefits until early September.
Progressive Democrats had pushed for higher supplemental unemployment benefits of $400, but after a last-minute standoff with a moderate Democrat, the Senate kept the payments at $300 a week.
On Tuesday with the bill's passage likely, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development sharply raised its 2021 global growth forecast amid greatly improved economic prospects.
It sees the US economy climbing by 6.5 percent this year, nearly double its previous forecast.