After weeks of tense negotiations on the third round of direct relief checks in the upcoming $1.9 trillion stimulus package, Democrats and President Joe Biden have caved in to demands from centrist Democrats and Republicans to lower the income eligibility for receiving stimulus checks.
While the checks will still phase out at the $75,000 yearly income threshold for individuals and $150,000 for couples, the checks will now be phased out completely for individuals making $80,000 and couples making $160,000. This is a decrease from the previous ceiling of $100,000 and $200,000, respectively.
The concession is smaller than what Republicans had been asking for in the past months and what Democrats had been considering. In their pared down version of the stimulus, Republicans called for the checks to begin phasing out at $50,000 a year for individuals instead of $75,000, but Democrats stuck to the $75,000 threshold in draft legislation released in February.
Though it was a Republican proposal to restrict eligibility, Democrats had considered it seriously despite the fact that Republicans are standing united against the stimulus anyway. But the pressure to consider lower income thresholds this time appears to have come from within the party itself with centrist Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) being vocal about the need to target the checks more narrowly.
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Though it’s unclear exactly where the current proposal came from, the Associated Press reports that the official who was the source of the news was describing internal conversations between Democrats. Biden’s sign-off on the proposal also comes after a White House meeting with moderate Democrats on Monday, where the moderates said they would be pushing for a narrower aid package.
The official confirmed, however, that Democrats would not be conceding to Manchin’s request from Monday to cut the unemployment benefits. Additional unemployment checks are currently at $400 a week in the stimulus package, and Manchin, himself a multimillionaire, had pushed for them to be lowered to $300 a week instead.
Democrats and progressives have previously been critical of the idea of limiting check eligibility. One point of frustration is that Democrats campaigned and won the Senate on the promise of $2,000 relief checks, but that promise has been pared down twice: first with the lower amount of $1,400, and now, with the lower limit on eligibility.
Democrats like Biden have justified the smaller amount of the checks by pointing out that the amount adds up to $2,000 in tandem with the $600 checks that went out as part of the stimulus bill passed at the end of last year. However, with the more restricted eligibility for these new checks, a number of people who received the $600 checks will likely not be eligible to receive anything this time around and will therefore be denied the full $2,000 payment, some say.
Others point out that it’s going to make Democrats and Biden look bad if the people who received their stimulus checks under Trump are denied them under this new stimulus bill. “I think a lot of people who got Trump checks won’t get Biden checks,” tweeted Bloomberg reporter Steven Dennis. “Manchin & co. getting more of what they wanted.”
Another problem with the eligibility restriction is that it’s based on 2019 tax filings — before the pandemic — for those who haven’t yet filed their taxes for 2020. The pandemic has cost millions of people their jobs and slashed many others’ ability to work enough hours to make ends meet. So, it’s quite possible that someone who made $80,000 in 2019, but lost their job in 2020 or earned half as much in 2020 because of the pandemic, will not be eligible for the $1,400 check if they have not yet filed their taxes for 2020.
The stimulus checks — and the stimulus itself — have been shown in polls to have overwhelming bipartisan support from the public. Many progressives have argued that Democrats should be uniting behind popular policies, rather than cutting them. Standing for more unpopular proposals like cutting the check eligibility, some say, will harm Democrats’ chances of holding their control over Congress.
The stimulus package is set to be voted on soon. The Senate is expected to begin their second round of amendment-proposing on the stimulus, known as “vote-a-rama,” as soon as Thursday, and a formal vote may soon follow. Congress is under pressure to pass the stimulus before unemployment benefits from the last package expire March 14.