Moderate Dems Force Deal To Limit Who Gets COVID Checks — With Seemingly Little Upside

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 24: Sen. Joe Manchin (Photo by Leigh Vogel-Pool/Getty Images)
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March 3, 2021 5:56 p.m.

The Biden administration made a deal with moderate Democrats Wednesday on the $1,400 direct checks in the COVID-19 stimulus package which has many observers baffled by the political calculus. 

Moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) have been insistent on “targeting” the checks more, to make sure the aid goes primarily to low-income people that need it badly. 

“We’re just looking for a targeted bill, want it to be very targeted, helping the people that need help the most,” he told reporters earlier this week when asked if anything in the COVID-19 relief package needed to be changed to clinch his vote. 

There are no senators to spare in a 50-50 Senate, and the Biden administration has to cater to Democrats like Manchin to get the bill passed. But the compromise means that some people who got checks from the Trump administration now seemingly won’t get them from the Biden administration.

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Now, as in the original version of the bill, single people who earn up to $75,000 will receive the full $1,400. Those who earn between $75,000 and $80,000 will receive a partial amount of that money. But those earning more than $80,000 will get nothing. Previously, people earning between $75,000 and $100,000 would get some partial amount. 

For couples who file taxes jointly, those who make up to $150,000 will still receive the full amount. Couples earning between $150,000 and $160,000 will get a partial amount. But those earning more than $160,000 will get nothing. In the original bill, couples earning between $150,000 and $200,000 would get a partial check.

Those new exclusions mean that about 12 million fewer adults and 5 million fewer kids will get the direct aid checks, according to the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Some of those people got checks under the Trump administration and will be boxed out this time. 

To many observers, the politics of the change are incomprehensible. It risks angering or alienating people who got checks last time, and for what? The cuts save about $12 billion, one Democratic aide told the Washington Post — out of a $1.9 trillion bill. That’s 0.6 percent of the whole package. Democratic aides told Slate that the maneuver may also help keep the Senate Finance Committee’s part of the bill under the budget cap allowed by the reconciliation process. 

But progressive Democrats and political observers questioned whether these seemingly minor trade-offs were worth it. 

“I don’t like that this is being narrowed,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) told reporters. “I feel like the survival checks are the easiest, simplest, most popular, populist, proposal.”

Another moderate Democratic ask, that the federal unemployment benefits be lowered from $400 to $300 a week, was reportedly not accepted as part of the deal. 

Progressives in the House could take a stand when the altered bill is passed back to their chamber, taking advantage of the slim Democratic majority to demand that the more generous measures be added back by threatening to sink the package. But Democrats are acutely aware of the March 14 cliff when millions of Americans will start losing their federal unemployment benefits, and are eager to get the package passed before then. 

There is also a lot that Democrats — progressives and some moderates alike — like in the package, including $350 billion for state and local aid, $130 billion for schools and a bunch of climate change-related measures. The Biden administration has especially touted the included child tax credit, which could cut child poverty in half.

Senate Democratic leadership is working to keep the caucus together as the vote-a-rama looms, where senators will offer up amendments to the relief package and Republicans will try to peel off Democratic votes. Republicans have previewed some stalling tactics they have in store to push off the vote as long as possible. Because there are only 50 Democratic senators, as has been a theme of the Biden administration so far, moderates have significant sway.

“I think some negotiations and concessions may solidify Democratic support,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

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