‘Transformative’ COVID stimulus plan on verge of passing US Congress

House of Representatives expected to give final approval to $1.9 trillion spending package on Wednesday, clearing it to be signed by Biden

In this image from video, senators stand and applaud support staff, before the final vote on the Senate version of the COVID-19 relief bill in the Senate at the US Capitol in Washington, March 6, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, senators stand and applaud support staff, before the final vote on the Senate version of the COVID-19 relief bill in the Senate at the US Capitol in Washington, March 6, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President Joe Biden’s massive stimulus plan was on the verge of clearing Congress on Tuesday, providing a lifeline for millions of American families and businesses, and jolting an economy digging out from the coronavirus pandemic.

The $1.9 trillion package, broadly popular with Americans and approved by the Senate at the weekend, gets a final House vote Wednesday, a congressional leadership aide told AFP, culminating a weeks-long negotiation over the cost and scope of the measure.

Biden, who made the American Rescue Plan his top legislative priority, would likely sign the historic bill into law by week’s end.

But the plan that funds COVID vaccines, preserves unemployment benefits for millions, and sends relief checks to most Americans can afford very few Democratic defections.

With all Republicans appearing in lockstep against the package, and Democrats enjoying the smallest majority in years in the 435-seat House of Representatives, Biden’s party can afford a maximum of four Democratic “no” votes.

In an effort to drive home how it helps the economy, Biden on Tuesday was to visit a Washington business benefiting from the plan, begun under Donald Trump’s administration, which helped businesses stay afloat during the crisis.

“I’m not going to try to hide it,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain posted on Twitter. “Yes, we are very excited, optimistic, and hopeful about what is about to happen,” following the potential passage of the rescue package.

US President Joe Biden speaks during an event to mark International Women’s Day, March 8, 2021, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The last Congress plan to fight the pandemic, which has to date left more than 500,000 dead in the United States and brought the economy to its knees, was enacted in December.

It expanded unemployment payments by $300 a week, and extended them through March 14.

That deadline has loomed as Biden and congressional Democrats crafted their latest package, but it appears they will meet it and extend the benefits until early September.

The House was considering a Tuesday vote, but the complications of finalizing the steps on such an enormous bill will likely push the process to Wednesday.

“The American Rescue Plan is transformative. It will comprehensively and compassionately meet the moment as a result of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic,” congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the Democratic leadership, told reporters Tuesday.

“Vaccinations are up, infections are down, $1,400 survival checks are on the way — and that is only the beginning,” he declared, adding perhaps prematurely that it was “mission accomplished” for several key Democratic priorities.

Granby kindergarten school teacher Christina Kibby (right) receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine from pharmacist Madeline Acquilano, at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

The bill funds COVID vaccine distribution and research, pours billions into state and local governments, continues eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, increases food aid, and sets aside $130 billion for schools.

Democrats had sought a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour, a provision supported by Biden, but it was jettisoned from the bill when it was ruled ineligible under rules of the Senate.

Progressive Democrats had also pushed for higher supplemental unemployment benefits of $400, but after a last-minute stand-off with a moderate Democrat, the Senate kept the payments at $300.

With the prospects of passage rising, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development sharply raised its 2021 global growth forecast Tuesday amid greatly improved economic prospects.

The OECD says it now expects the global economy to grow by 5.6 percent, an increase of 1.4 percentage points from its December forecast.

“Global economic prospects have improved markedly in recent months, helped by the gradual deployment of effective vaccines, announcements of additional fiscal support in some countries, and signs that economies are coping better with measures to suppress the virus,” it said in a report.

The OECD now sees the US economy climbing by 6.5% this year, an increase of 3.3 percentage points from its previous forecast.

But Republicans remained opposed. Number two House Republican Steve Scalise said Democrats were “pushing a socialist agenda,” while “bankrupting the next generation with mountains of debt.”

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