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Covid relief just passed -- here's what's in it
Today, the Senate passed its Covid relief bill, sending it back to the House, which is expected to pass it Tuesday, and it’ll be signed into law by Biden before the week is out. Checks could be in your bank accounts before the end of the month.
Yet only the Democratic Party can put together a $1.9 trillion relief package and manage to get on the wrong side of public opinion for being too cheap. Yet that’s where we’ve arrived after two months of debating the party’s stimulus, with centrist Democrats chipping away at the benefit structure by phasing out individual checks at a faster rate, and pushing to shrink unemployment benefits, as well as shorten the length of time extra benefits are paid out.
That’s on top of the political mess created by Democrats who continued promising $2,000 checks even after the first $600 had gone out to people in December and January. That left people believing what they were told — that another $2,000 was on its way. And then they topped it off by adding a $15 minimum wage to the package, with no intention to fight for it if the Senate parliamentarian ruled it was out of order, which she did. As a result, more than a trillion dollars from the rest of the package -- and even the details of the check -- have gone largely under the radar.
But the sense of disappointment may be blunted by other elements of the legislation that have gotten much less attention. Democrats haven’t been messaging about what’s in much of the bill, and Republicans have instead focused their ire on the estate of the late Dr. Seuss and on Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, who will now live under the single brand name of Potato Head. (Mr. and Mrs. Head, contrary to Republican hysteria, have in fact retained their respective genders. Only the umbrella brand name was tweaked.)
The fluke in how the current policy was crafted -- in fits and starts, spanning two administrations, two special elections, and a Senate takeover -- gave an unlikely boost to the left wing of the party when it came to the checks. For the past year, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey have been arguing that adults and their children and other dependents should be getting the same amount of relief money. In the CARES Act last March, adult dependents were cut out entirely, and while adults got $1,200, dependents got $500. That meant a family of four banked a check for $3,400.
When Sanders and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., successfully argued for inclusion of $600 checks into the December relief package, the figure was small enough that Sanders was able to win the argument to equalize adults and dependents. Everybody would get a flat $600, meaning a family of four would get $2,400. But then-President Donald Trump, having sat out the negotiations, signaled he would veto the package unless the figure was bumped to $2,000 and an assault on Big Tech was added to the bill.
In the House, congressional progressives, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., quickly introduced an amendment to meet Trump’s $2,000, increasing the payments to $1,400. The current legislation, which adopted the amendment, kept the formula the same, equalizing payments between adults and children. That means, if the new bill is enacted, a family of four will be on the receiving end of a one-time check worth $5,600.
The money doesn’t stop there. A new child tax credit, which will be implemented for just one year, but which Democrats aim to extend, offers $3,600 for every child under six, and $3,000 for every non-adult child above that age. The aim is to have the IRS send out a check each month to families making less than $150,000. (So that family of four above, if both kids are under six, would get $600 each month if the IRS can administer the system effectively. If the kids are older, it would be $500 each month.)
The unemployment benefits deal reached today is something of a wash. Democrats lowered the extra weekly payment from $400 to $300, but extended it from August to September and added in a provision forgiving taxes on UI, which is retroactive.
The bill also includes billions in new subsidies for health care coverage, going to both Obamacare plans and COBRA; a bailout of the child care industry; $50 billion for broadband upgrades; and billions toward full vaccination.
In the House, progressive Democrats are still fighting over the tightened eligibility for relief checks, and resisting efforts to limit unemployment benefits, but so far there’s been no serious threat to block the package without the final set of demands being met. And Sanders himself is sending signals that he’s comfortable with where it’s headed. Asked Thursday about Biden’s tightened eligibility requirements for relief checks, he told CNN: "I think the main point is that we are doing something that is reasonably consistent with what we have done in the past.”
Ahead of the effort to pass a stimulus in 2009, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told President Barack Obama there was “no fucking way” anything with a T could get through Congress. This package is nearly three times the size of the one Obama pushed through. For more on what’s in it, listen to this week’s episode of Deconstructed.
ANDREW CUOMO IS LIVING TO REGRET THE DEAL HE PUSHED ON LETITIA JAMES
IN 2003, Letitia “Tish” James shook the New York Democratic political establishment, becoming the first City Council candidate to win office solely as a nominee of the Working Families Party. James spent the next 15 years as an outspoken, independent-minded progressive and a leading voice for the city’s social movements. In 2013, despite being vastly outspent, she won a tight race for New York City public advocate, a stepping stone to mayor.
Her close alliance with the city’s grassroots was considered by political observers to be both a benefit and an obstacle. She had people behind her, but she didn’t have money — and moving to the next level required lots of it.
When New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was forced to resign amid a #MeToo scandal in 2018, James was quickly discussed as a potential successor. But could she raise the funds?
That’s where Andrew Cuomo came in. The state’s governor, who was seeking his third term, was in the midst of a long-running feud with the organization that was so intimately linked with James’s rise, the WFP. Under pressure from Cuomo, local unions had left the party, taking their clout and financing with them. In April 2018, the WFP came for the king, endorsing activist and actor Cynthia Nixon for the Democratic primary over Cuomo, who vowed to destroy the organization. Cuomo had long treated figures in New York politics — his playground — like kids to be bullied. He turned his attention to James.
In May, Cuomo made James an excruciating offer: He would endorse her and open his donor network to her, but it would come at a price. Not only would she have to endorse him, but she would also have to publicly refuse the support of the WFP. Ripped from the pages of a cliched mafia screenplay, James would have to prove her loyalty by executing her longtime ally.
Cuomo made James an excruciating offer: He would endorse her and open his donor network to her, but it would come at a price.
James was left with two bad options: Accepting Cuomo’s offer was the most likely route to winning the election, but it would come with accusations that she had traded in her trademark independence and social justice values. Rejecting it could cost her the election and make Cuomo into a fatal enemy.
James took the deal. The WFP endorsed her anyway, against her public will, while jointly endorsing Zephyr Teachout. The bulk of its spending went toward opposing the most right-leaning candidate, Sean Patrick Maloney, who represents a congressional district upstate.
In the fictional version of these parables, a deal with the devil always ends the same way: The devil always gets his due. But New York politics is not a parable. The story’s new plot twist conforms more closely to a Disney version: Cuomo is getting his due of a different kind, with scrutiny over his failed coronavirus response and an investigation into sexual harassment claims. His fate now rests with Tish James.