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House Democrats prep changes to coronavirus relief package

Measure to come to the floor for a vote on Friday, House majority leader says

A $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill continued to take shape Tuesday, with suspense building over whether a minimum wage increase would survive.

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth has assembled an initial 138-page draft manager’s amendment full of changes to the 592-page version his committee approved on Monday, including the submissions of three committees that didn’t mark up their portions previously.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether more changes would be incorporated to the package before the measure goes to the Rules Committee on Friday, the last stop before the floor. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., tweeted Tuesday that the measure would come to the floor for a vote later on Friday.

But the version posted Tuesday night would retain the minimum wage provisions, subject to a high-stakes meeting between senators and the chamber’s parliamentarian expected Wednesday.

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In a face-off before Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, Democrats and Republicans will argue over whether the minimum wage increase to $15 over five years can meet strict budget rules in the Senate.

“We think there’s a good chance the ruling will come tomorrow. We think she has listened attentively,” Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he and Sanders are “arguing very strongly” to the parliamentarian that the wage boost should be included. “We’re going to await her judgment before we go any further.”

The Senate ruling affects the House’s planning because Democratic leaders want to minimize the time spent making changes to the bill with a March 14 deadline looming. That’s when a $300 federal add-on to unemployment benefits expires; Democrats want to boost that to $400 and extend it through September, though to cut costs the House bill would sunset that provision Aug. 29.

While progressives in both chambers are pushing hard for the wage increase to be included, some moderates are concerned about voting on the provision if it has a dim future in the Senate.

In addition to the “Byrd rule” issues that are being litigated in the Senate, Democrats face opposition to the $15 wage provision from inside their own party — Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have come out publicly against it. With Republicans seemingly unified against the reconciliation bill, Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote in the 50-50 chamber.

In an interview Tuesday, Blue Dog Coalition co-chair Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., said while she supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, “if its inclusion in this package would cause the bill to slow down because of the need to reconcile with the Senate, then that would be problematic and something I would look into.”

MacDonough is expected to rule as early as Wednesday, which could leave enough time for the minimum wage increase to be removed from the bill before it goes to the House floor. There’s no indication that House Democratic leaders are considering removing the wage increase, however.

Prior to the manager’s amendment from Yarmuth, D-Ky., which the Rules Committee is expected to incorporate into the base text, the Congressional Budget Office said the existing 592-page draft bill was over its $1.89 trillion combined ceiling under the fiscal 2021 budget resolution.

With the three additional committee submissions, the excess amount would grow to $67 billion. That’s the same amount the minimum wage increase would cost over a decade, according to the CBO. In addition, the provision would cause the measure to increase deficits beyond fiscal 2030, a Byrd rule violation.

Three more committees weigh in

It wasn’t clear from the latest amendment text where the offsets would come from, and some provisions appeared to add new spending, beyond the three expected committee submissions — from Foreign Affairs, Science and Natural Resources — totaling $11.8 billion.

The largest allotment in the three committees’ add-on package is $8.7 billion to combat the pandemic overseas, with $3.8 billion reserved for HIV/AIDS programs. Another $3 billion would go to the U.S. Agency for International Development, including support for disaster relief, health activities and emergency food needs. And $1 billion would be directed to various international humanitarian response activities.

The Natural Resources Committee submission is split between $900 million for tribes and $105 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service. The tribal funds would support government services, public safety, social services and child welfare, along with tribal housing improvement and potable water.

The largest portion of the Fish and Wildlife Service allocation, $95 million, would support wildlife inspections, the care of wildlife in facilities that lost revenue due to COVID-19, and research into the early detection of wildlife disease outbreaks before they become pandemics.

The Science Committee wrote a smaller, $750 million portion of the bill. That includes $600 million for the National Science Foundation to fund research grants, cooperative agreements and scholarships to research the coronavirus. The committee also submitted $150 million for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to fund other research and development to respond to the pandemic.

Other changes

The manager’s amendment also would tweak existing provisions of the bill. Some are largely administrative or technical, like making corresponding changes to the tax code to conform with provisions injecting some $86 billion into union-sponsored pension plans at risk of insolvency.

Others are more substantive. Within the Agriculture Committee’s jurisdiction, the amendment would narrow the scope of $4 billion in commodity purchases and grants and loans by removing seafood and seafood processing facilities and ships from the list of eligible recipients. Payments for losses due to high winds and derechos during the 2020 crop year would also be removed.

From the Energy and Commerce panel, the amendment appears to redirect $1.8 billion set aside for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and mitigation funds in “congregate settings” such as jails, long-term care facilities and psychiatric hospitals.

Instead, general testing, tracing and mitigation funds in the bill would increase by that amount, with a new eligible use for the money: to “support the acquisition, construction, alteration or renovation” of nonfederal facilities to produce diagnostics and medical supplies. And the amendment would appear to increase funds for bolstering domestic medical supply chains by $850 million.

Other changes in the health care section deal with pregnancy and postpartum coverage and hospitals that serve a disproportionate share of low-income patients under Medicaid. And there’s language clarifying that eligibility for $20 million in Native Hawaiian health centers funding should include Papa Ola Lokahi, a Honolulu-based nonprofit.

Direct assistance to low-income renters would increase by $1.2 billion, with the money targeted at “high-need grantees,” defined as those paying at least 50 percent of their income for housing or living in “substandard or overcrowded conditions.”

Among several tweaks to the $350 billion in direct aid to states and localities is removal of language allowing the transfer of payments to “a multi-State entity involved in the transportation of passengers or cargo.” According to Jeff Davis of the Eno Center for Transportation, there are very few such entities, including the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority and the New Jersey-Pennsylvania Turnpike Bridge compact, among others.

Transit agencies would benefit from nearly $461.4 million more in the manager’s amendment, on top of $30 billion in the underlying bill. Most of the adds, $425 million, would go to capital investment grants for light rail, commuter rail, street cars and buses, with another $36 million set aside for transit grants in rural areas.

And requirements that contractors on federally backed transit projects using money in the bill be paid comparable wages to those prevailing on similar construction projects in the area would be dropped.

Another add to the bill would provide $12.8 million for the White House itself to prepare for and respond to COVID-19.

Peter Cohn, Lindsey McPherson and Doug Sword contributed to this report.

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