Neal says Biden coronavirus relief plan likely to pass before unemployment benefits expire in March

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal indicated that the next round of coronavirus relief could get approved before crucial unemployment benefits expire in mid-March.

Neal, who heads the House Ways and Means Committee, was part of a group of 13 House leaders and committee chairs who met with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House on Friday to discuss the administration’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan.”

“We also are on a timeline to get this done before unemployment benefits begin to expire in the middle of March,” Neal told reporters on a press call Friday.

The U.S. House voted by a slim margin to approve a budget plan passed by the U.S. Senate — with Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote — that allows the president’s $1.9 trillion aid package to begin working its way through congressional committees. The plan passed without Republican support.

“We have been focused like a laser on getting this done,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after the leading House Democrats met with Biden on Friday. “We hope to be able to put vaccines in people’s arms, money in people’s pockets, children safely in schools and workers in their jobs. That’s what we are doing now.”

The stimulus package would include checks of up to $1,400 for low- and moderate-income families. While details on the parameters of those checks were not immediately clear, Neal said Biden “would not retreat” on them.

“The president indicated he is still open to suggestions that people might have. He indicated a willingness to target the impact payments to make sure that the people that needed it the most received the checks, but he would not retreat,” on the dollar amount, Neal said, “And he will not retreat on the size of the package of $1.9 trillion.”

Biden’s proposal would also extend key jobless benefits at a time when the economy is showing new signs of weakening. Employers added just 49,000 jobs in January, according to the latest Labor Department report, after cutting 227,000 jobs in December.

Biden has expressed hope of passing his relief package with bipartisan support. But as some Republicans call for slowing down or scaling back the effort, the president has also indicated his party is willing to go it alone.

“I know some in Congress think we’ve already done enough to deal with the crisis in the country. Others think that things are getting better and we can afford to sit back and either do a little or do nothing at all,” Biden said in remarks on Friday.

“If I have to choose between getting help right now to Americans who are hurting so badly and getting bogged down in a lengthy negotiation or compromising on a bill … that’s an easy choice,” Biden said. “I’m going to help the American people who are hurting now.”

Still Biden conceded a key element of his plan — hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour — was unlikely to become law.

Herald wire services contributed to this report.

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