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UPDATE 2-U.S. senators refine Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill, push pet projects

Richard Cowan
·4-min read

(Adds funds for bridge dropped from bill)

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON, March 2 (Reuters) - Negotiations over President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill go into overdrive this week as the U.S. Senate begins debate over the sweeping legislation and lawmakers jockey to include pet projects, while tossing others overboard.

Senator Angus King, an independent aligned with Biden's Democrats, has been pushing for billions of dollars to expand high-speed broadband service in rural areas - an idea that could attract Republican support.

But Democrats should not expect much, if any, Republican backing for the entire bill.

"It is my hope that at the end, Senate Republicans will unanimously oppose it, just like House Republicans did," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, complaining that the measure was filled with provisions he said were unrelated to the pandemic.

Nonetheless, Democrats are bolstered by opinion polls indicating a majority of Americans back Biden's aid plan.

The Senate was due to take up as early as Wednesday the measure passed last weekend by the House of Representatives.

Democratic senators were privately discussing reallocating at least some of the huge pot of money.

One project that got ditched on Tuesday from the Senate version of the bill was $1.5 million for a bridge connecting upstate New York with Canada. Republicans had charged it was an example of lawmakers funding pet causes because Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is from New York.

But a Senate source said Schumer had no knowledge the funding for the Seaway International Bridge was in the bill until reading about it in the media, and that the request to include it in relief legislation was made last year by the Department of Transportation while former President Donald Trump was in the White House.

The version of the bill approved last week by the House would pay for vaccines and medical supplies and send a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments.

It includes $1,400 direct payments to individuals, a $400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through Aug. 29, and help for those having difficulty paying rents and home mortgages during the pandemic.

MINIMUM WAGE LIKELY EXCLUDED

The Senate version is likely to include at least one major change: eliminating a minimum wage increase to $15 per hour by 2025 from the current $7.25. Late last week, the Senate parliamentarian ruled the proposal could not be included in a procedure designed to ease passage of the legislation in the Senate.

Democrats are expected to resuscitate their minimum wage initiative sometime after the COVID-19 bill is enacted.

Congress is trying to give final approval to Biden's top legislative priority as the pandemic already has taken the lives of more than 515,000 Americans.

"Millions of jobs and trillions of dollars have been taken out of our economy," Schumer said on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

Schumer will need the support of all 48 Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote to pass the measure before some jobless benefits expire on March 14.

Three centrist House members, Democrats Josh Gottheimer and Abigail Spanberger and Republican Tom Reed, urged congressional leadership on Tuesday to devote $45 billion to help local communities connect to the internet.

They want the money to come out of the $350 billion for state and local aid included in the bill.

Their argument is that those with poor or no broadband access are stymied in accessing medical services, including registering for vaccines, and getting their children plugged in to remote learning during the pandemic.

A Senate aide familiar with negotiations said there were also discussions of tightening income qualifications for people receiving the $1,400 direct payments.

Moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said he wanted the House's $400-per-week temporary federal unemployment benefit reduced to $300. The Senate aide said there also were moves to "turn the spigot off" on the payments as state jobless rates sink below a certain threshold.

If the Senate passes the bill, possibly by the end of this week, the House would then have to sign off one last time before sending it to Biden for enacting into law. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that final vote would come next week.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)