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Dems Tighten Benefits, Firm Support    03/04 06:18

   President Joe Biden and Democrats agreed to tighten eligibility limits for 
stimulus checks, bowing to party moderates as leaders prepared to move their 
$1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill through the Senate.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Joe Biden and Democrats agreed to tighten 
eligibility limits for stimulus checks, bowing to party moderates as leaders 
prepared to move their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill through the Senate.

   At the same time, the White House and top Democrats stood by progressives 
and agreed that the Senate package would retain the $400 weekly emergency 
unemployment benefits included in the House-passed pandemic legislation. 
Moderates have wanted to trim those payments to $300 after Republicans have 
called the bill so heedlessly generous that it would prompt some people to not 
return to work.

   The dealmaking Wednesday underscored the balancing act Democrats face as 
they try squeezing the massive relief measure through the evenly divided, 50-50 
Senate. The package, Biden's signature legislative priority, is his attempt to 
stomp out the year-old pandemic, revive an economy that's shed 10 million jobs 
and bring some semblance of normality to countless upended lives.

   Democrats have no choice but to broker compromises among themselves, thanks 
to their mere 10-vote House margin and a Senate they control only with Vice 
President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote. The party's moderate and 
progressive factions are competing to use their leverage, but without going so 
far as to scuttle an effort they all support.

   "He's pleased with the progress that is being made with the rescue plan," 
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of Biden, reflecting the flexibility 
he and all Democrats will need to prevail. "He's always said he's open to good 

   So far, Republicans have presented a unified front against the bill. Senate 
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he wants unanimous GOP 

   But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, didn't rule out breaking ranks and 
supporting the measure. She told reporters her state's tourism industry has 
been walloped by the pandemic and said she's talked to administration officials 
about "how this helps a state like Alaska."

   The Senate could begin debating the bill Thursday, but Democrats faced 
mountains of GOP amendments and other delays that could take days to plow 
through. The House will have to approve the Senate's version before shipping it 
to Biden, which Democrats want to do before the last round of emergency jobless 
benefits run dry March 14.

   "I would expect a very long night into the next day and keep going on," said 
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., describing GOP plans to force votes.

   Under the legislation, individuals earning up to $75,000, and couples up to 
$150,000, would get $1,400 checks per person. The House-approved version would 
gradually phase down that amount, with individuals making $100,000 and couples 
earning $200,000 receiving nothing.

   Under Wednesday's agreement, the Senate bill would instead halt the payments 
completely for individuals making $80,000 and couples earning $160,000, said a 
Democratic official, who described the agreement only on condition of anonymity.

   That means some people who received the last round of $600 relief checks 
approved in December wouldn't get anything this time. The liberal Institute on 
Taxation and Economic Policy estimated that the pared-down Senate eligibility 
levels means 280 million adults and children would receive stimulus checks, 
compared to 297 million people under the House plan.

   West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps the chamber's most conservative 
Democrat, has favored lowering the relief check eligibility limits and opposed 
the House bill's minimum wage increase. He suggested Wednesday he'd back the 
emerging Senate legislation, saying it "really does have enough good stuff that 
we should be able to make this work."

   In a swipe at moderates, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a leader of his chamber's 
progressives, called the new phase-out of relief checks a "silly and stupid" 
effort to appease "the one or two people who can hold things up."

   Yet asked if the change could threaten the overall bill, Pocan said, "Let's 
hope they don't screw too many things up. We need to get this done."

   Liberals were already angry after Senate Democrats jettisoned the House 
bill's minimum wage increase to $15 by 2025. They did so after the Senate 
parliamentarian said the chamber's rules wouldn't allow the boost in the bill 
and as Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said they'd oppose its 
inclusion, sealing its fate.

   The House version of the relief checks would cost $422 billion, making them 
the package's single most expensive item.

   The two chambers' bills are largely similar, with both bearing money for 
state and municipal governments, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, schools, health 
care subsidies and tax breaks for children and lower-earning people.

   Republicans continued lashing the measure as an overpriced Democratic wish 
list of liberal causes that lavishes help on many who don't really need it.

   "Democrats had a choice," McConnell said. "They chose to go it alone, tack 
to the left, leave families' top priorities on the cutting room floor."

   "This is not a liberal wish list," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck 
Schumer, D-N.Y. "This is an American wish list. When people want checks to help 
them get out of the morass, that's not a liberal wish list. That's what the 
American people want."

   Slowly, the Senate bill's contours were taking shape.

   Senate Democrats were removing $1.5 million for a bridge between New York 
state and Canada and around $140 million for a rapid transit project south of 
San Francisco after Republicans cast both as  pet projects f or Schumer and 
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D---Calif.

   Aides to both Democratic leaders said the projects weren't new and had been 
supported by the Trump administration.

   Democrats are using special rules that will let them avoid GOP filibusters 
that would require them to garner an impossible 60 votes to approve the 

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