U.S. senators weigh paring back Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. senators on Wednesday were eyeing potentially significant cuts to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill as they awaited a ruling on whether the measure can include raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

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The Senate parliamentarian was expected to decide soon whether Senator Bernie Sanders’ proposed minimum wage increase is allowable under a rule allowing a simple majority of the 100-member Senate to approve the sweeping relief measure, instead of the chamber’s typical 60-vote majority.

The House of Representatives on Friday could pass the bill that would help tackle the heavy human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 500,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work.

The Senate is likely to follow up in early March. The measure is Biden’s top legislative priority.

Senate Democrats and Republicans were looking at scaling back some of the biggest provisions, including expanded federal unemployment benefits, $1,400 direct payments to Americans and money for state and local governments, according to lawmakers and aides.

Some rural-state senators hoped that such cost cuts could create savings to be used to improve their lagging broadband service.

According to a Senate aide familiar with private conversations, various senators mulled tying additional federal unemployment benefits to individual states’ jobless rates.

A new round of stimulus checks could be scaled back to exclude more high earners, the aide said. Several senators, including Democrat Joe Manchin, have said they were looking at a minimum wage increase to $10 to $11 an hour, instead of $15 by 2025, up from the current $7.25.

“I think even though several Democrats have some concerns, that we can still find a basis for agreement,” Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told reporters.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who must juggle demands of progressive and moderate Democrats amid Republican opposition, described a U.S. economy in need of help beyond the nearly $4 trillion provided last year.

“Our country is still in the throes of crisis,” Schumer said in a Senate speech on Wednesday. “Millions of Americans have reported being thousands of dollars behind on rent, on utilities. Small businesses are hanging on for dear life.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged some families were still struggling, but surveyed a different landscape, citing strong retail sales and brisk manufacturing activity.

“Our country does not need another massive fire hose of borrowed money,” McConnell said.

Over 150 business leaders affiliated with the Partnership for New York City, urged Congress to pass the bill, saying in an open letter: "More must be done to put the country on a trajectory for a strong, durable recovery." here

Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney