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Dems tighten relief benefits, firm up support for virus bill

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Sun shines on the U.S. Capitol dome, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden and Democrats agreed to tighten eligibility limits for stimulus checks Wednesday, bowing to party moderates as leaders prepared to move their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill through the Senate.

At the same time, the White House and top Democrats stood by progressives and agreed that the Senate package would retain the $400 weekly emergency unemployment benefits included in the House-passed pandemic legislation. Moderates have wanted to trim those payments to $300 after Republicans have called the bill so heedlessly generous that it would prompt some people to not return to work.

The deal-making underscored the balancing act Democrats face as they try squeezing the massive relief measure through the evenly divided, 50-50 Senate. The package, Biden’s signature legislative priority, is his attempt to stomp out the year-old pandemic, revive an economy that’s shed 10 million jobs and bring some semblance of normality to countless upended lives.

Democrats have no choice but to broker compromises among themselves, thanks to their mere 10-vote House margin and a Senate they control only with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. The party’s moderate and progressive factions are competing to use their leverage, but without going so far as to scuttle an effort they all support.

“He’s pleased with the progress that is being made with the rescue plan,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of Biden, reflecting the flexibility he and all Democrats will need to prevail. “He’s always said he’s open to good ideas.”

So far, Republicans have presented a unified front against the bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he wants unanimous GOP opposition.

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, didn't rule out breaking ranks and supporting the measure. She told reporters her state's tourism industry has been walloped by the pandemic and said she's talked to administration officials about “how this helps a state like Alaska.”

The Senate could begin debating the bill Thursday, but Democrats faced mountains of GOP amendments and other delays that could take days to plow through. The House will have to approve the Senate’s version before shipping it to Biden, which Democrats want to do before the last round of emergency jobless benefits run dry March 14.