One way or another, Rep. Richard Neal says Congress is going to pass President Joe Biden’s proposed COVID-19 relief package.
And after meeting with Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last Friday, the Springfield Democrat believes it will happen by the “second or third week of March.”
Neal, who chairs the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means, joined Republican Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday afternoon at the State House for a bipartisan showing of support for the additional round of federal support. Baker called it “critical” for Congress to “pass significant relief swiftly to help us beat down the pandemic.”
If by mid-March is swiftly, Neal says that’s the plan.
Last week, both chambers of Congress passed a resolution clearing the way for the package to be enacted through a process called budget reconciliation, which allows certain types of legislation to pass with just a 50-vote simple majority in both the House and Senate (Democrats control both chambers, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 split Senate).
Neal said the Ways and Means committee plans to meet Wednesday to start hammering out the details of roughly half the bill with the hopes of finishing that work by Friday.
The outline of the bill, which was partly unveiled by Neal’s committee Monday evening, includes $1,400 direct payments to all individuals with an adjusted gross annual income of less than $75,000. The payments gradually phase out for those making up to $100,000. Neal also noted that adult dependents, such as college-aged children, would for the first time be eligible to receive payments. He also added that he thinks Biden is “open to some negotiating on the ceilings.”
More importantly, Neal argued, was the extension of the federal boost to weekly unemployment benefits; he said the increase would be between $300 and $400 until August 29. The current $300 federal boost to unemployment benefits is set to expire March 14.
According to the Washington Post, Neal also spearheaded an effort to expand the child tax credit to $3,600 a year for each child under the age of 6, as well as to $3,000 for every child between 6 to 17 years old. The current child tax credit is $2,000 a year.
Neal said Monday that the plan includes a total $360 billion to help state and local governments stave off cuts due to the economic toll of the pandemic. The bill also includes hundreds of billions to expand the country’s COVID-19 vaccination, testing, and contact tracing programs.
According to the longtime congressman, the more than six-month gap between the initial CARES Act and the relief bill passed in December, which resulted in a monthlong lapse in the federal boost to unemployment benefits, likely slowed the economic recovery. In an effort to avoid a similar scenario, he said that officials are hoping to implement the new initiatives for “at least one year” and “try to buy some time to find out where the pandemic leaves us.”
“Our timeline is tight,” Neal said. “The president was fully engaged on these matters on Friday morning — two hours, we went back and forth with him on filling in the details, as I’ve described them, and the speaker has made it clear that this is going to be done by mid March.”
Despite previous rounds of federal support, Neal says the national statistics continue to paint a dire picture, particularly for people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Across the country, 10 million jobs lost due to the pandemic have not returned, he said. According to Baker, that number is 330,000 in Massachusetts.
“There’s still way too many people out of work, through no fault of their own,” Baker said, noting that many small businesses still won’t recover for months, especially those in the hospitality and entertainment industries whose business models relied on bringing together tons of people in close proximity.
While Neal said he thinks the economy is poised to “really take off” in the second half of this year, he reiterated that last month’s jobs report — illustrating that employment numbers hadn’t nearly returned to their levels a year ago — was “bad.”
“Economists left, right and center would all agree with what I’ve just asserted: people are struggling,” Neal said. “We need to hear their calls for help.”
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