WASHINGTON (AP) — A Congress driven along party lines approved the landmark $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Wednesday, as President Joe Biden and Democrats claimed a major triumph on legislation marshaling the government’s spending might against twin pandemic and economic crises that have upended a nation.
The House gave final congressional approval to the sweeping package by a near party line 220-211 vote precisely seven weeks after Biden entered the White House and four days after the Senate passed the bill. Republicans in both chambers opposed the legislation unanimously, characterizing it as bloated, crammed with liberal policies and heedless of signs the crises are easing.
“Help is here,” Biden tweeted moments after the roll call, which ended with applause from Democratic lawmakers. Biden said he’d sign the measure Friday.
Most noticeable to many Americans are provisions providing up to $1,400 direct payments this year to most people and extending $300 weekly emergency unemployment benefits into early September. But the legislation goes far beyond that.
“Today we have a decision to make of tremendous consequence,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “a decision that will make a difference for millions of Americans, saving lives and livelihoods.”
For Biden and Democrats, the bill is essentially a canvas on which they’ve painted their core beliefs — that government programs can be a benefit, not a bane, to millions of people and that spending huge sums on such efforts can be a cure, not a curse. The measure so closely tracks Democrats’ priorities that several rank it with the top achievements of their careers, and despite their slender congressional majorities there was never real suspense over its fate.
“I have seen so many people struggle financially because of COVID-19, and people need assistance from higher powers to make ends meet,” said sophomore Giavanna Volpe.
Republicans noted that they’ve overwhelmingly supported five previous relief bills that Congress has approved since the pandemic struck a year ago, when divided government under then-President Donald Trump forced the parties to negotiate. They said this one solely reflected Democratic goals by setting aside money for family planning programs and federal workers who take leave to cope with COVID-19 and failing to require that shuttered schools accepting aid reopen their doors.
“A federal response is necessary, but the dollar amount seems excessive,” said Sacred Heart University Prof. Gary Rose, Chair of the Department of Government.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., touted the bill’s $29 billion for the ailing restaurant industry, tweeting it would help them “survive the pandemic” without mentioning he had voted against the legislation. Democrats predicted this week that Republicans would do that, with Pelosi saying, “It’s typical that they will vote no and take the dough.”
Wicker told reporters, “I’m not going to vote for $1.9 trillion just because it has a couple of good provisions.”
A dominant feature of the 628-page bill is initiatives making it one of the biggest federal efforts in years to assist lower- and middle-income families. Included are expanded tax credits over the next year for children, child care and family leave — some of them credits that Democrats have signaled they’d like to make permanent — plus spending for renters, feeding programs and people’s utility bills.
“I like the emphasis this bill puts on working-class and low-income families as well as small businesses,” said freshman Brian Foisy. “It’s also great that President Biden and Democrats fulfilled their campaign promises of more stimulus checks.”
Besides the direct payments and jobless-benefit extension, the measure has hundreds of billions for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, schools, state and local governments and ailing industries from airlines to concert halls. There is aid for farmers of color, pension systems and student borrowers, and subsidies for consumers buying health insurance and states expanding Medicaid coverage for lower earners.
“Who’s going to help? Do we say this is all survival of the fittest? No,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky. “We rise to the occasion. We deliver.”
Rep. Jared Golden of Maine was the only Democrat to oppose the measure. He said some of the bill’s spending wasn’t urgent.
The measure was approved amid promising, though mixed, signs of recovery.
Americans are getting vaccinated at increasingly robust rates, though that is tempered by COVID-19 variants and people’s growing impatience with curbing social activities. The economy created an unexpectedly strong 379,000 jobs last month, but there remain 9.5 million fewer than before the pandemic struck.
Republicans said the country will pay a price for the extra spending.
“It’s certainly good politics to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to hand you a check for $1,400,’” said Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C. “But what they don’t talk about is what this bill costs.”
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found last week that 70% of Americans back Biden’s response to the virus, including a hefty 44% of Republicans. According to a CNN poll released Wednesday, the relief bill is backed by 61% of Americans, including nearly all Democrats, 58% of independents and 26% of Republicans.
Yet until November 2022, when control of the Senate and House will be at stake, it will be uncertain whether voters will reward Democrats, punish them or make decisions on unforeseen issues.
Ryan Downey contributed to this article.