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Biden to critics of $1.9 trillion relief plan: ‘What would they have me cut?’

The House prepares to take up the legislation next week, although the debate over a proposal for a $15-an-hour minimum wage remains unresolved.

President Biden speaks after a tour of a Pfizer manufacturing plant producing the coronavirus vaccine in Kalamazoo, Mich., on Friday. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

President Biden mounted a strong defense Friday of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, addressing GOP critics who say it’s too big and asking, “What would they have me cut?”

“Should we not invest 20 billion dollars to vaccinate the nation?” Biden asked during a visit to a Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo, Mich. “Should we not invest 50 billion dollars to help small businesses stay open when tens of thousands have had to close permanently?”

“How many people do you know will go to bed tonight staring at the ceiling saying, ‘God, what is going to happen if I don’t get my job, if I don’t have my unemployment check?’” Biden added.

“I could go on, but you get the point.”

Biden spoke as the House prepares to take up the legislation next week, with Senate action to follow. He said he was open to hearing ideas on how to change the proposal or reduce its price tag — although the White House has refused so far to move off the $1.9 trillion figure.

“I’m grateful that the Senate and the House are moving quickly and I’m prepared to hear their ideas on how to make the package better and make it cheaper. I’m open to that,” Biden said. “But we have to make clear who is helped and who is hurt. And my hope is that the Republicans in Congress listen to their constituents.”

Biden cited polling showing majorities of the public support his plan, although support among Republicans is under 50 percent in some polls. Despite modest efforts on Biden’s part to court Senate Republicans, GOP lawmakers appear uniformly opposed to the legislation. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) sent out a “whip notice” Friday urging a “no” vote on the plan and labeling it the “Pelosi’s Payoff to Progressives Act” — a reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Earlier Friday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pledged that Congress would approve the legislation and send it to the president to sign ahead of the March 14 deadline of when enhanced unemployment insurance benefits expire.

Schumer’s commitment came even as a dispute over Biden’s proposed $15-per-hour minimum wage remains unresolved, with moderate Democratic senators balking on the issue as liberals push it aggressively. Under complex Senate rules for consideration of the legislation, lawmakers are currently awaiting guidance from the Senate parliamentarian on whether the minimum wage provision can even be part of the package.

“The Senate is on track to send a robust $1.9 trillion package to the president’s desk before the March 14 expiration of Unemployment Insurance benefits. We will meet this deadline,” Schumer wrote in a Friday letter to Senate Democrats.

The House is prepared to take up the bill next week, pass it and send it to the Senate perhaps Friday or Saturday. That would allow the Senate a couple of weeks to work through the minimum-wage dispute and any other issues — and send the legislation back to the House for final passage if changes are made — ahead of the March 14 deadline.

March 14 is when current $300 weekly emergency federal unemployment benefits are set to expire. The Biden bill would increase those weekly benefits to $400 and extend them into the fall.

The 591-page bill, which House Democrats officially unveiled Friday, also includes a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks. Coming on top of $600 stimulus payments approved in December, that would make good on Biden’s promises of $2,000 stimulus checks to voters.

Additionally the legislation includes about $350 billion for city and state governments experiencing massive revenue shortfalls; $160 billion for vaccines, increased testing and other help for the health-care system; about $130 billion to help schools reopen; food assistance and rent help; and an increased and expanded child tax credit.

As part of the next covid relief bill, President Biden proposed an expanded child tax credit that would send direct payments to help struggling families. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Scott Dalton/The Washington Post)

The bill also includes a smattering of items less obviously related to the coronavirus crisis, such as a bailout for failing multi-employer pension plans.

“Next week, the House is expected to consider the nearly $2 trillion package of progressive priorities Democrats have rushed to bring to the Floor,” the Scalise whip notice said. “This package will keep schools closed, bailout blue states, pay people not to work, and raise the minimum wage to $15/hour.”

Aides to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also circulated a memo Friday, indicating they planned to challenge the legislation aggressively once it reaches the Senate floor under the rules of “budget reconciliation,” which would allow it to pass with a simple majority vote instead of the 60 votes normally required.

Under budget reconciliation, provisions without a budgetary impact are prohibited. The McConnell memo highlighted the minimum-wage increase, among other issues. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said increasing the $7.25 hourly federal minimum wage to $15 would increase earnings for millions of workers and lift people out of poverty but also eliminate 1.4 million jobs — findings Democrats have challenged.

Because the Senate is divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote if they proceed without GOP support under “budget reconciliation.” If they hold together, they can pass the legislation with Vice President Harris breaking the tie.

However, two moderate Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — have indicated opposition to increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour via the reconciliation process. Manchin indicated earlier in the week that he might be open to a lower increase of about $11 or more an hour, according to activists who met with him, while Sinema has separately promoted other priorities for the bill, specifically additional funding to help small restaurants.

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House have identified the $15 minimum wage as their top priority for the bill and along with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been lobbying aggressively for its inclusion. Biden has said repeatedly that he supports a $15 minimum wage, while raising questions about whether it would survive the parliamentary process. At a town hall earlier this week, he expressed sympathy for a small-business owner who raised concerns about the issue, and said the question of its effect was “debatable.”

Jeff Stein contributed to this report.