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UPDATE 1-U.S. House Democrats advance $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid bill

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Richard Cowan
·2 min read
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(Adds Biden quote in paragraph 4)

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON, Feb 19 (Reuters) - President Joe Biden's pushfor a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill took a step forward onFriday as a U.S. House of Representatives committee unveiled thelegislation Democrats hope to pass by late next week.

The 591-page bill, stitched together by the House BudgetCommittee, would carry out Biden's proposals to provideadditional money for COVID-19 vaccines and other medicalequipment.

Biden toured a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing plant inPortage, Michigan, amid efforts to ramp up production, with onlyabout 15% of the U.S. population vaccinated against thecoronavirus so far.

He said he was open to proposals to make the package lessexpensive. Referring to Republican critics, Biden said, "Let meask them what would they have me cut, what would they have meleave out."

Besides the additional funding for medical supplies, majorcomponents of the massive aid plan focus on stimulating thecountry's economy, which has struggled over the past year underjob layoffs and shuttered businesses resulting from a pandemicthat has killed nearly 500,000 Americans. The plan would offerdirect payments to households, extended federal unemploymentbenefits, aid to state and local governments, and other steps.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she was aiming for avote in the Democratic-controller chamber on passing the bill --a top priority of the new Democratic Biden administration -- bythe end of next week.

Earlier on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, afellow Democrat, said his deeply divided chamber will pass thebill before March 14, when the latest round of federalunemployment benefits expire.

While Schumer said he welcomed "constructive amendments" byRepublicans, he added in a letter to rank-and-file Democrats:"Make no mistake: the era of Mitch McConnell’s legislativegraveyard is over."

Senator McConnell, a Republican, served as majority leaderfrom 2015-2020 and had proudly labeled himself the "Grim Reaper"of legislative initiatives from the Democratic House.

Included in the House bill is a controversial proposal togradually raise the federal minimum wage, now set at $7.25 anhour, to $15 by 2025.

The provision faces multiple difficulties: Republicansoppose it and at least two moderate Senate Democrats have warnedthey, too, would vote against it, which would sink the wageincrease in a Senate split 50-50.

More importantly, the Senate parliamentarian might prohibitthe measure altogether, under arcane Senate rules governing"reconciliation" bills such as this one that allow it to movethrough the chamber by simple majority votes. Most other billsneed to have the backing of at least 60 senators to clearprocedural hurdles.

The House Budget Committee is set to meet Monday to weighamendments to the bill before sending it to the full House fordebate and passage.(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by AlexandraAlper in Portage, Michigan; Editing by Leslie Adler and DianeCraft)