Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) — chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — is putting up a fight against the push by centrist lawmakers to make fewer people eligible for $1,400 stimulus checks.
The debate over lowering income limits for the next round of stimulus checks has divided Democrats in Congress. President Joe Biden has said he won’t accept direct payments less than $1,400, but is open to tightening the eligibility.
Prior stimulus checks started phasing out for individuals making $75,000 per year and $150,000 for joint filers. Some centrist lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.) have proposed phasing the checks out at lower income levels to target those most in need.
“People who got the first two checks are expecting a third. And the fact is, the pandemic has hit these families like a wrecking ball. They're just balancing the food bill against the fuel bill, and the fuel bill against the rent bill,” said Wyden in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “We're going to have a pretty vigorous debate all the way through the process.”
On Monday evening, House Democrats proposed keeping the income limits the same, but with a faster phase-out. The payments would go to zero for individuals who make $100,000 per year and couples who make $200,000. It’s not immediately clear if the move will satisfy Democrats on both sides of the debate.
“The House took a strong position,” said Wyden to reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning. “I support it.”
House Democrats have also proposed a plan to send parents monthly checks of $250-$300 per child. Wyden told Yahoo Finance he supports a similar plan unveiled in the Senate last Congress.
“We need to significantly reduce the poverty that we're seeing with youngsters from sea to shining sea. We're better than that,” said Wyden.
‘Absolutely unacceptable’ to let unemployment benefits lapse again
Democrats are working to pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package before mid-March, when enhanced unemployment benefits once again run dry.
“Bottom line is anything else would be absolutely unacceptable,” said Wyden. “To have those workers in the middle of March, because the benefit runs out March 14, fall into another economic abyss would just be wrong.”
So far, Congress has picked specific dates for the enhanced unemployment benefits to expire. The extra $600 per week included in the CARES Act stopped at the end of July, and was a contentious point of debate until Congress passed another relief package in December. In December, Congress agreed to an extra $300 per week through March 14. The new House proposal calls for a $400 weekly boost through the end of August.
Wyden argues the aid should be tied to economic conditions rather than political debates in Washington. He’s proposed linking the enhanced benefits to states’ unemployment rates. As the economy recovers, the aid would phase out.
As a candidate, President Biden supported the idea of automatic stabilizers. His $1.9 trillion plan proposed extending the emergency unemployment insurance programs through the end of September and a factsheet said Biden would “work with Congress on ways to automatically adjust the length and amount of relief depending on health and economic conditions so future legislative delay doesn’t undermine the recovery and families’ access to benefits they need.”
“He [Biden] knows it is absurd to just be plucking these arbitrary dates out of the air,” said Wyden. “Arbitrary, by the way, picked by Mitch McConnell, so that Mitch McConnell will have more leverage over the debates.”
In written remarks to the Senate Finance Committee, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said “automatic stabilizers play a critical role in mitigating the negative impacts of recession.”
Some Republicans have opposed automatic stabilizers because it reduces lawmakers’ discretion over spending, and the measure could be difficult to pass under the rules of reconciliation.
Jessica Smith is chief political correspondent for Yahoo Finance, based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.