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House vote key first step for Democrats’ stimulus plans

Not even halfway through President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office and the House of Representatives is on track Friday to pass his $1.9 trillion relief bill.

This package, the culmination of weeks of behind-the-scenes work by a dozen committees, a strategic and aggressive lobbying campaign targeted both inside and outside the beltway, and the “iron fist” of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi keeping her troops in line, is major. If it felt smooth, uneventful or quiet, it’s because you are dealing with united government and Democratic members who, despite some individual grumbling about why a provision was included, don’t want to spoil this moment for Biden.

This is what it looks like when you have united government, rank-and-file members willing to fall in line, staggering public polling backing a bill and seasoned policy hands shepherding the legislation through the process.

With all that said, remember, this is just the first step.

Let’s talk about the Senate

The Senate parliamentarian’s ruling on Thursday night is a major blow for progressives hoping to finally raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but as multiple Democratic aides have been telling us for weeks, this will make it easier for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to get his party in line.

It also spares Schumer the difficult political decision of having to pull it from the bill and risk his own standing with progressives. That’s because two moderates — Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — had made it clear that the $15 minimum wage was not going to have their support. Manchin seemed open to lowering it, Sinema seemed less open to including any minimum wage hike at all.

There are still other sticking points for moderates both on the eligibility requirements on who gets direct checks, the formula surrounding state and local governments and some are fighting to expand broadband in this package, but those issues have more levers you can pull, scales you can slide to find a middle ground. Minimum wage was harder to contend with given its popularity, slogan and progressive base.

For his part, Schumer knows the moderates are going to need to be happy with this final version. Multiple aides tell CNN that the majority leader held a side meeting Thursday with moderates to talk a little bit about what they need to see in the bill to ultimately support it. The conversation was characterized as “positive” by multiple people, but underscores the growing realities for Schumer of a 50/50 majority and the emerging threat that moderates — two in particular — could pose to the Biden agenda if Schumer doesn’t navigate those relationships very carefully.

Overruling the parliamentarian

This is not happening. The White House’s statement was clear Thursday: The President is disappointed, but he respects the decision. He’s not going to challenge it. White House chief of staff Ron Klain told MSNBC this week that they would not try to circumvent the parliamentarian.

But because we will get questions about it: Yes, the parliamentarian’s ruling is guidance. Yes, technically the presiding officer (Vice President Kamala Harris in this case) could ignore it. But, if that happened, a Republican would object. A vote would be called to overrule it and if they had 60 votes it would be overruled. You could argue that maybe Democrats wouldn’t join Republicans in overruling it, but you are missing the macro point here that Manchin and Sinema wouldn’t vote for the bill if Democrats went down this road. Without them, the bill would be dead. So, again: This is not happening.

The real options for the minimum wage

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden said Thursday night that he would be interested in creating a tax penalty for the largest corporations that didn’t enact a higher minimum wage. This is hardly an across-the-board minimum wage increase. The argument is that perhaps something like this that would act as an incentive or deterrent for large corporations could pass the strict scrutiny of the Senate parliamentarian. It’s still a longshot and there isn’t much time. It’s also — again — not clear if this would garner the support of Manchin and Sinema.

The other option is to wait and try to increase the federal minimum wage later with 60 votes. Republicans wouldn’t back an increase to $15, but you could see a world in which maybe a smaller increase would be palpable to some moderate Republicans. Are there 10 willing to back something like that? That is the big question.

Important note: The House bill will include the minimum wage increase. The Senate’s version will be passed as early as next week and then the House will have to vote again on that new version. Friday’s vote is just the opening volley in this process.

Pelosi’s role

Several members with whom CNN spoke expressed some frustration with how the speaker handled the process, moving it quickly through committees without much room to change major pieces of the bill.

As CNN reported earlier Friday, some rank-and-file members say Pelosi has led the Congress in the opening weeks with an “iron fist” — a symptom of the fact she has little room for error in her own caucus with just a five-vote margin and is leading in an unprecedented moment as the House grapples with an attack on the Capitol that roiled her chamber on January 6.

What Democrats are touting is in the bill

  • $130 billion for K-12 schools
  • $40 billion for higher ed
  • $40 billion in assistance for childcare providers
  • Provides subsidies to help unemployed workers buy emergency health insurance known as COBRA
  • $5 billion for home energy assistance program expansion
  • Expands funding to address domestic violence and child abuse
  • Provides Americans who make $75,000 or less the full $1,400 direct check. Americans making less than $100,000 are eligible on a sliding scale
  • $350 billion in state and local funding with a new formula that prioritizes places that experienced higher rates of unemployment
  • $50 billion for small businesses
  • Extends $400 federal unemployment benefit through August 2021
  • Expansion of the child tax credit to $3,000 per child (6-17) per year and $3,600 per child (0-6) per year. The program creates monthly payments.

What Republicans will focus on in the bill today

Republicans started whipping their members against this bill last week.

It’s popular, but Republican aides believe that they can win an argument that the legislation is too big, not bipartisan and includes superfluous spending on transportation projects, the multi-employer pension reform and funding for arts and humanities that isn’t directly tied to the pandemic. Aides familiar with this process tell CNN that leadership and the whip team “armed members with tons of examples of waste and unrelated items in this bill and talking points” that members can use on social media. The line you will hear a lot from Republicans on Friday is that less than 10% of this bill is directly related to public health and that a large chunk of the school funding won’t be used until next year.

Republicans have also been arguing this bill is premature given billions from the last coronavirus relief bill still have not been spent.

Timing today

Things are fluid. Rules has to meet to set the parameters of the debate, there is a vote on the wilderness vote first and we are unclear if Republicans will use a stalling strategy of forcing Democrats to vote on motions to adjourn, which will make this all take even longer. In other words, the vote will likely be Friday at some point, most likely later in the day.

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