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Stimulus bill showdown: Senate has 2 weeks to solve big problem, pass package

The Senate has some major obstacles to overcome to pass the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill and send the $1,400 checks. Here's where the bill stands.

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Congress is working to complete the new stimulus bill by the middle of this month.

Sarah Tew/CNET

To pass the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill in the next two weeks, Senate Democrats need to navigate a hazardous path full of potential obstacles that could delay sending the third stimulus check and renewing federal unemployment benefits set to run out March 14. Among the hurdles the Senate will have to clear is resolving what to do about boosting the federal minimum wage rate.

The economic stimulus plan the Senate is expected to take up this week would send $1,400 checks to struggling families and individuals, expand child tax credits to lower-income families, extend federal unemployment benefits through August and fund COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

To make their deadline, however, legislators may need to shed pieces of the bill that could hold up a vote, such as the minimum-wage hike. Here's what you need to know about the relief bill now with the Senate, including the timeline to deliver new stimulus checks, which falls in the middle of tax season. This story is updated regularly with new information.

Senate may abandon minimum wage fight this time

With time running short, Senate Democrats may jettison a provision in the relief bill to boost the minimum wage. The hike has seen growing resistance from all sides, and according to The Washington Post, the lawmakers will look to include the $15 hourly rate in another bill if they can't find a way to include it in the current stimulus package.

Democrats have identified a boost to the federal minimum wage as a cornerstone of their economic recovery plan. The proposed wage increase, however, is seeing growing resistance from all sides, which threatens to hold up the bill in the Senate. The minimum wage rate has stood at $7.25 an hour since 2009. By boosting the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, 32 million US workers, or 21% of the workforce, would see their hourly wage lifted, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

The relief bill before the Senate this week includes the $15 minimum wage hike, but the pay raise is facing growing resistance from Republicans, some Democrats and even the Senate parliamentarian, who determines which items can and can't be included in the bill under a technique known as budget reconciliation. Democrats are relying on reconciliation to speed the bill through the approval process and avoid filibusters. 

To remove the pay raise as an obstacle to passage, the Senate could strike the minimum wage language. Democrats could also take another path to a wage hike, but on March 1, The Washington Post reported Democrats have abandoned their plan to force larger corporations to adopt a $15 minimum wage rate. (Some major retailers already pay workers at least $15 an hour.)

While many Republicans oppose the bill, some are pushing for a smaller wage hike. Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney, for example, proposed going lower, setting the minimum wage at $10. On the Democratic side, Sen. Joe Manchin said the $15 an hour rate is too high and that he'd support a raise to $11 an hour. Fellow Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is also opposed. Democrats will need those two votes to pass the package along party lines.

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A $1,400 third stimulus check, with an income cutoff

A $1,400 stimulus check amount looks set. Congressional Democrats, however, are considering new rules to "target" or restrict the checks to lower income earners. Under those proposed eligibility rules, some who qualified for the first two payments may not make the cut for a third. A hard ceiling on income, designed to exclude higher earners from getting a check, would come with a rule change for the use of dependents in the stimulus check formula. Check out our stimulus payment calculator to see how that could work for you.

The new proposal would give the IRS a deadline of Dec. 31 this year to finish sending the stimulus checks.

For this third round of payments, congressional Democrats are pushing to include adult dependents as well as children and families with mixed-status citizenship. Here are all the ways a third check could bring more money, or how you could get less or be disqualified altogether. Here's what happens to your total if a check arrives during tax season. And here is how the third check compares to the first two payments.

What's going on with student loan forgiveness?

Although forgiving student loan debt is part of the discussion, Senate Democrats and President Joe Biden have different dollar figures in mind for how much to cancel. Biden on Feb. 16 said he supports canceling $10,000 in student debt and extending the pause on student loan repayment. Biden's figure is at odds with a Senate Democrat proposal, however, that calls for canceling up to $50,000 in student debt.

"I do think that, in this moment of economic pain and strain, that we should be eliminating interest on the debts that are accumulated, No. 1. And No. 2, I'm prepared to write off the $10,000 debt, but not $50,000," Biden said. The House bill doesn't address student loan debt.

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Democrats want to help students with loan debt.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Additional $400 in weekly unemployment benefits

If the new bill is approved by March 14, it would renew the federal unemployment aid without a gap in funding. The House version of the plan would send $400 federal unemployment payments through August, with triggers that would extend the benefits after September for those who continue to be out of work and include automatic payment adjustments linked to health and economic conditions.

The weekly $300 federal unemployment checks Congress approved in December as part of the $900 billion COVID-19 relief legislation are set to expire this month.

Expanded child tax credit would bring thousands of dollars more

The House bill would expand the child tax credit that currently allows families to claim up to a $2,000 credit for children under age 17. If approved, the plan would extend the benefit to lower-income families who otherwise wouldn't receive the credit. Families could claim up to $3,600 per year for a child under age 6 and up to $3,000 per year for those ages 6 to 17.

The expansion would target low- and middle-income households, according to Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center. "More than one-third of the benefit would go to the lowest income parents, who'd get an average tax cut of almost $3,300," Gleckman wrote on Feb. 10. "Low- and middle-income parents would receive nearly 80% of benefits."

The plan would also expand tax credits for one year to help cover the cost of child care. Families could get back as a tax credit as much as half of their spending on child care for children under age 13, up to $4,000 for a single child and $8,000 for two or more children.

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Congress may set aside more money for child tax credits.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Coronavirus vaccine delivery across the US

More than 96 million vaccine doses have so far been distributed in the US -- and more than 75 million administered -- with the country on track to meet Biden's goal of 100 million vaccine jabs during the first 100 days of his administration (April 30 would be 100 days after Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration). In a town hall-style meeting on CNN on Feb. 16, Biden said that by the end of July, the country will have enough supply to vaccinate everyone in the US. The goal then becomes having enough other supplies and people to administer the vaccine.

Biden's plan would set aside $160 billion for a nationwide vaccine program that would help state and local governments get the vaccine into people's systems.

Eviction ban extended through September

The new proposal would extend the eviction and foreclosure moratoriums until Sept. 30. The plan would provide $30 billion in rental assistance for renters and small landlords, especially for low- and moderate-income households. On Jan. 20, Biden signed an executive order extending the eviction ban through this month, which means it may not be part of the final new stimulus bill at all.

Funds to help reopen schools during COVID-19

Getting students back on campus is a critical piece of the economic recovery. The bill would work to return students to schools by having a majority of kindergarten to eighth-grade classrooms safely reopen in the first 100 days of the administration.

Additional money for state, local and tribal governments

Since the fall, economists have pushed for Congress to provide funding for state and local public jobs. "The case for additional aid is strong because the downside risk of doing nothing is quite real," the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said at the end of last year. "The fact that over 1 million state and local government workers have lost their jobs is a sign that fiscal distress has had real consequences." In addition to state and local funding, the bill would provide funds for food and water assistance and food stamps.

For more information about stimulus money, here are the top facts you need to know about stimulus checks, how to calculate the size of your check and how your dependents could figure into your payment.