AMERICAN RESCUE PLAN

Third stimulus check: what happens if Congress doesn't pass it on 22 February?

The House is pushing forward with their version of the $1.9 trillion covid-19 relief bill with the legislation expected to reach Biden's desk by mid-March.

Third Stimulus check: what happens if Congress doesn't pass it on 22 February?
SAMUEL CORUM AFP

Although the Senate is on recess this week, House Democrats will keep working on hammering out the details of $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. They expect to finish the bill and vote on it as soon as next week. Then it will be sent over to the Senate, where lawmakers will have a go at the legislation with tough choices to ensure that all 50 Senators in the Democratic caucus will vote in favor.

Democrats are working fast to avoid expanded unemployment benefits and other pandemic-related programs expiring again in mid-March. To speed along the process the Democrats are using budgetary reconciliation, whereby they can sidestep a GOP filibuster which would require at least 10 Republicans in the Senate to vote with Democrats. However that tool also means that the push to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour might not pass the Byrd bath, where the Senate parliamentarian decides if parts of the bill meet the requirement to use reconciliation.

What is happening with the covid-19 relief bill?

There are 12 House committees writing pieces of the Democrats' covid-19 relief bill based on the framework of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. So far the Ways and Means, the Education and Labor, Financial Services, Transportation and Small Business Committees have passed their pieces of the proposal.

While the Senate was tied up with the second impeachment trial for former President Trump, they couldn’t do any formal work on the coronavirus relief legislation. However Democrats from both chambers were working behind the scenes to prepare for swift passage of the bill once it gets out of the House. The bill has momentum with Democrats unified to take big steps, but the Senate is likely to change parts of the bill where members in both chambers don’t see eye to eye.

What is in the covid-19 relief bill so far?

The House Ways and Means committee served up its half of the legislation. The nearly $1 trillion portion approved contained enhanced child tax credits and other tax provisions, along with the much-anticipated $1400 stimulus checks.

The committee maintained the income eligibility caps set in the previous two rounds of stimulus checks. The limit for receiving the full payment will be $75,000 and $150,000 annual adjusted gross income (AGI) for individuals and couples respectively, but phases the checks out faster at upper income levels.

The proposed enhanced child tax credit would see families receiving $3,000 per child 17 and younger and $3,600 per child under 6 annually for the 2021 fiscal year. Half the slated benefit would come as direct monthly payments beginning in July and the remainder as a tax refund next year. Although the measure is temporary Democrats want to make the proposal permanent in the future.

The House Education and Labor Committee passed its portion of the bill, including funds for reopening schools, expanded health insurance coverage and the $15 per hour minimum wage hike. The final measure would see the minimum wage increase gradually each year until 2025 when it reaches the full amount.

What are the obstacles to passing the covid-19 relief bill?

The overall size of the bill has caused consternation among GOP lawmakers. However the Democrats are using budget reconciliation to bypass the need to get 10 Republican Senators onboard. Which means that the legislation will require all 50 Senators in the Democratic caucus to vote in favor to reach a simple majority of 51 votes, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote.

The biggest sticking point when the bill moves forward to the Senate among Democrats could be the minimum wage hike. Two Democratic Senators have expressed opposition to the measure, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The latter made it clear that she will not vote for a covid-19 relief bill that contains raising the minimum wage.

“What’s important is whether or not it’s directly related to short-term Covid relief. And if it’s not, then I am not going to support it in this legislation,” Sinema told Politico. “The minimum wage provision is not appropriate for the reconciliation process. It is not a budget item. And it shouldn’t be in there.”

Could the coronavirus relief package pass by 22 February?

There is a good chance that the minimum wage hike, even though it is included now might not make it to the Senate. Because Democrats are using budgetary reconciliation the Senate parliamentarian will have to give approval on whether to measure truly affects the budget. If it doesn’t pass muster it could help Democrats save face and a headache.

The soonest the Senate could look at the bill, should it get through the House before then, would be 22 February when the body returns from recess. However House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a news conference Thursday that she wants the package passed by the House no later than the end of February and on the President's desk before 14 March, when enhanced unemployment benefits are due to run out.

Once the bill arrives in the Senate, it is expected to come up for a vote on the floor directly. However, the upper chamber will then go through the process of modifying portions that don’t have enough support to pass. If modifications are made, the bill will have to go back to the House for the final vote of approval. It's not clear if Pelosi will be able to keep the entire caucus inline should the bill undergo significant changes.

Third stimulus check: live updates

You can get the latest updates on the proposed third stimulus check, and other mooted aid measures such as the expanded child tax credit, by following our dedicated live blog.