By ALLISON PECORIN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Fewer people will qualify for direct payments as part of the new COVID-19 relief bill under an agreement by Senate Democrats.
The agreement more narrowly tailors who qualifies for those $1,400 direct checks that President Joe Biden has touted as part of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation. The Senate is expected to begin debate on the plan Thursday.
Individuals making less than $75,000 or couples making less than $150,000 will still be eligible for a full $1,400 payment under the new agreement. But partial payments will be capped at $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for couples.
The House version of the bill allowed reduced payments to those earning up to $100,000 and couples earning up to $200,000. The change means that some who would have received partial payments under the House bill will no longer receive a check.
The agreement comes as Biden and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer jostle to keep the caucus united in support of the president’s signature bill.
The Senate is currently divided evenly, which means the defection of even one Democratic senator could hurt the bill’s prospects. Moderate Democrats had been lobbying to lower the income threshold on direct payments to ensure that checks are sent to the hardest hit families.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., led that charge and White House press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden has been listening closely to the senator’s proposals. She also said that Biden is “comfortable with where the negotiations stand.”
“He has been open from the beginning for that being more targeted and for there to be a steeper cliff at which that ramp-down ends,” Psaki said.
Some of the more progressive members of the Democratic conference aren’t pleased with the agreement. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she preferred the higher income eligibility.
“The package as it was originally crafted is good to go,” Cantwell said.
But no Democrat has signaled that this change will cause them to vote against the overall package.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called the agreement a “reasonable compromise,” but it may also be a necessary one if Democrats are hoping to complete the legislation before the March 14 deadline when unemployment benefits expire.
“I think it’s an appropriate way of bringing this to a successful conclusion,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said.
The agreement struck between Senate Democrats and the White House Wednesday morning does, however, keep the $400 weekly federal boost to unemployment insurance through August in the package, a win for more liberal members.
Manchin had signaled Wednesday that the $400 unemployment insurance payouts were not a deal breaker for him.
“I just think that the bill has, really, enough good stuff — really does have enough good stuff — that we should be able to make this work — we really should,” Manchin said. “I’m very pleased with the discussions and dialogues and some changes that have been agreed upon.”
An effort by progressive Democrats including Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to extend unemployment insurance through September did not make the cut, however.
The Senate is headed toward an hours-long series of votes on amendments on the COVID package later this week.
Republicans have already said they plan to offer a laundry list of amendments to the bill, focusing on areas of the package that they find most troublesome. The process could keep the Senate in a voting posture for many hours.
Republicans have criticized the bill, calling it a “liberal wish list” poorly targeted at coronavirus-specific needs. They’ve also bashed Democrats for choosing to “go it alone” rather than work on a bipartisan agreement.
Biden, on a call with Senate Democrats Tuesday, urged members to present a united front during the amendment votes. That unity will be critical because it is not clear that any member of the GOP will support the bill in the Senate. It got no votes from Republicans in the House.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told reporters Wednesday she’s undecided on the package, and not all members of the Senate have made clear how they intend to vote.
If Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has his way, the GOP will be equally united in opposition.
“We’ll be fighting this in every way that we can,” McConnell said Tuesday. “It is my hope that at the end, Senate Republicans will unanimously oppose it.”
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