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US House narrowly passes Biden's COVID relief bill amid pandemic economic fallout

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
The Senate's rules expert said that US Democrats cannot include an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour in the COVID relief package. (Photo by AP)

The US House of Representatives has narrowly passed President Joe Biden’s COVID stimulus bill as the country is contending with economic fallout of the pandemic.

No Republicans voted for the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package as Democrats who control the chamber passed the sweeping measure on rare post-midnight vote of 219 to 212.

The relief plan was narrowly passed four days after the US COVID death toll surpassed 500,000, and now heads to the Senate for vote next week.

"After 12 months of death and despair, the American recovery begins tonight," congressman Brendan Boyle said.

Democrats had scrambled and pushed hard to raise the US minimum wage as part of the pandemic relief measure, however, a key Senate official ruled Thursday that the final version of the bill cannot include a minimum wage hike.  

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi predicted the relief bill will pass Congress with or without the increase, but said it would be "catastrophic" if it does not become law.

"The American people need to know that their government is there for them," she told the chamber. "As President Biden has said, help is on the way."

Pelosi said, "We will not rest until we pass the $15 minimum wage."

The Senate's rules expert said that the minimum wage hike did not qualify for special treatment that allows the rest of the bill to be passed in the Senate with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes needed to advance most legislation in the 100-seat chamber.

President Biden had campaigned on raising the US minimum wage to $15 an hour, from $7.25 that has stood since 2009.

The “rescue plan” will include $1,400 direct payments to most Americans and allocate billions of dollars to boost vaccine delivery, help schools re-open and fund state and local governments.

The package also extends a $400-per-week federal unemployment benefit by August and halt eviction orders for millions of Americans struggling to pay rent amid the pandemic.

Unemployment benefits and some other types of aid are due to expire in mid-March.

Archaic and undemocratic rules’

US progressive Senator Bernie Sanders has slammed division in the Senate, saying that the "archaic and undemocratic" rules prevent Congress from passing much-needed legislation sought by a majority of hard-hit Americans.

US media said progressives like Biden are studying ways to raise wages, including introducing an amendment to the COVID package that would create tax penalties for major corporations which pay employees less than $15 an hour.

Democrats now face major challenges to their hope of using the bill to raise the minimum wage as experts say time is running out to revive a US economy hit hard by the COVID pandemic.

The White House budget office said the measure, for which no Republicans expressed support, provides "critical" tools for tackling health crises in the United States.


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