House passes $1.9tn pandemic relief bill, sends it to Senate

Democrats said the package was needed to fight a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work. (File/AFP)
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Updated 27 February 2021

House passes $1.9tn pandemic relief bill, sends it to Senate

  • Final passage appeared likely after the measure cleared a procedural hurdle by a partyline vote of 219 to 210.

WASHINGTON: The House approved a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill early Saturday in a win for President Joe Biden, even as top Democrats tried assuring agitated progressives that they’d revive their derailed drive to boost the minimum wage.
The new president’s vision for flushing cash to individuals, businesses, states and cities battered by COVID-19 passed on a near party-line 219-212 vote. That ships the massive measure to the Senate, where Democrats seem bent on resuscitating their minimum wage push and fights could erupt over state aid and other issues.
Democrats said the still-faltering economy and the half-million American lives lost demanded quick, decisive action. GOP lawmakers, they said, were out of step with a public that polling shows largely views the bill favorably.
“I am a happy camper tonight,” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said Friday. “This is what America needs. Republicans, you ought to be a part of this. But if you’re not, we’re going without you.”
Republicans said the bill was too expensive and said too few education dollars would be spent quickly to immediately reopen schools. They said it was laden with gifts to Democratic constituencies like labor unions and funneled money to Democratic-run states they suggested didn’t need it because their budgets had bounced back.
“To my colleagues who say this bill is bold, I say it’s bloated,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “To those who say it’s urgent, I say it’s unfocused. To those who say it’s popular, I say it is entirely partisan.”
That divide is making the fight a showdown over which party voters will reward for heaping more federal spending to combat the coronavirus and revive the economy atop the $4 trillion approved last year.
The battle is also emerging as an early test of Biden’s ability to hold together his party’s fragile congressional majorities — just 10 votes in the House and an evenly divided 50-50 Senate.
At the same time, Democrats were trying to figure out how to assuage progressives who lost their top priority in a jarring Senate setback Thursday.
That chamber’s nonpartisan parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, said Senate rules require that a federal minimum wage increase would have to be dropped from the COVID-19 bill, leaving the proposal on life support. The measure would gradually lift that minimum to $15 hourly by 2025, doubling the current $7.25 floor in effect since 2009.
Hoping to revive the effort in some form, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is considering adding a provision to the Senate version of the COVID-19 relief bill that would penalize large companies that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour, said a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
That was in line with ideas floated Thursday night by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, a chief sponsor of the $15 plan, and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, to boost taxes on corporations that don’t hit certain minimum wage targets.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., offered encouragement, too, calling a minimum wage increase “a financial necessity for our families, a great stimulus for our economy and a moral imperative for our country.” She said the House would “absolutely” approve a final version of the relief bill because of its widespread benefits, even if it lacked progressives’ treasured goal.
While Democratic leaders were eager to signal to rank-and-file progressives and liberal voters that they would not yield on the minimum wage fight, their pathway was unclear because of GOP opposition and questions over whether they had enough Democratic support.
House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., sidestepped a question on taxing companies that don’t boost pay, saying of Senate Democrats, “I hesitate to say anything until they decide on a strategy.”
Progressives were demanding that the Senate press ahead anyway on the minimum wage increase, even if it meant changing that chamber’s rules and eliminating the filibuster, a tactic that requires 60 votes for a bill to move forward.
“We’re going to have to reform the filibuster because we have to be able to deliver,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, a progressive leader.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., another high-profile progressive, also said Senate rules must be changed, telling reporters that when Democrats meet with their constituents, “We can’t tell them that this didn’t get done because of an unelected parliamentarian.”
Traditionalists of both parties — including Biden, who served as a senator for 36 years — have opposed eliminating filibusters because they protect parties’ interests when they are in the Senate minority. Biden said weeks ago that he didn’t expect the minimum wage increase to survive the Senate’s rules.
Pelosi, too, seemed to shy away from dismantling Senate procedures, saying, “We will seek a solution consistent with Senate rules, and we will do so soon.”
The House COVID-19 bill includes the minimum wage increase, so the real battle over its fate will occur when the Senate debates its version over the next two weeks.
The overall relief bill would provide $1,400 payments to individuals, extend emergency unemployment benefits through August and increase tax credits for children and federal subsidies for health insurance.
It also provides billions for schools and colleges, state and local governments, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, renters, food producers and struggling industries like airlines, restaurants, bars and concert venues.
Democrats are pushing the relief measure through Congress under special rules that will let them avoid a Senate GOP filibuster, meaning that if they are united they won’t need any Republican votes.
It also lets the bill move faster, a top priority for Democrats who want the bill on Biden’s desk before the most recent emergency jobless benefits end on March 14.
But those same Senate rules prohibit provisions with only an “incidental” impact on the federal budget because they are chiefly driven by other policy purposes. MacDonough decided that the minimum wage provision failed that test.
Republicans oppose the $15 minimum wage target as an expense that would hurt businesses and cost jobs.


Ever Given insurance company says $900m compensation claim is unjustified

Updated 47 min 52 sec ago

Ever Given insurance company says $900m compensation claim is unjustified

  • Insurer says it made a generous offer on April 12
  • Crew of Ever Given remains on board ship

RIYADH: The insurance company for the Ever Given, which blocked the Suez Canal for almost a week in March, said it was disappointed by the court order to detain the vessel until $900 million compensation is paid after it had already made a generous offer to settle the claim.

The offer to the Suez Canal Authority was made in cooperation with the Japanese company that owns the ship on April 12th, Al Arabiya reported. However, the ship, its cargo and crew are being held until an agreement is reached, said the insurance company, UK Protection and Indemnity Club.

The Economic Court in Ismailia, Egypt, approved a request submitted by the Suez Canal Authority on Monday, to seize on the ship until $900 million is paid to cover the cost of freeing the ship and the disruption to traffic on the canal.

The insurer described the figure as “huge” and unjustified and said it is working with all concerned parties to ensure the release of the ship, its cargo and 25-person crew.

The Ever Given, currently in the Great Bitter Lake region, will move to Port Said for further examination, the insurance company said.


Saudi NESCO to replace 74,000 streetlamps with LEDs in Riyadh

Updated 55 min 9 sec ago

Saudi NESCO to replace 74,000 streetlamps with LEDs in Riyadh

  • Replacing lights will cut power consumption by 70%

RIYADH: The National Energy Efficiency Services Company (NESCO) will replace 74,000 traditional “sodium” lamps with other smart systems (LED) lights, in 8 municipalities of the Riyadh region.

Agreements between NESCO, also known as Tarshid, and municipalities were signed on Wednesday, SPA reported.

The LEDs will reduce power consumption by more than 70 percent, avoiding more than 48,000 metric tons of carbon emissions, equivalent to planting 810,000 trees.

The agreements aim to set unified standards for street lighting at the international level, in accordance with the Saudi Standards, Metrology and Quality Organization (SASO).

Tarshid has completed 12 previous agreements with the region’s municipalities, and will soon sign 27 agreements to include the remaining 47 municipalities, CEO Walid bin Abdullah Al-Ghariri said.


Saudi Public Transport Authority launches 15 business centers across the Kingdom

Updated 16 April 2021

Saudi Public Transport Authority launches 15 business centers across the Kingdom

  • Cities served will include Riyadh, Jeddah, Makkah and Dammam

RIYADH: Saudi Public Transport Authority has launched business centers in 15 cities across the Kingdom, to provide licensing and customer support services.
The cities include Riyadh, Makkah, Madinah, Jeddah, Dammam and Al-Ahsa, as well as Qassim, Tabuk, Hail, Arar, Al-Jouf, Al-Baha, Asir, Najran and Jizan, SPA reported.
The Authority seeks to enhance the logistics sector in the Kingdom in line with Vision 2030 goals, said General Supervisor of Operations at the Public Transport Authority Fahad Albadah.
The business centers will allow clients to implement multiple services through the digital package provided by the Naql gateway, Albadah said.


Saudi inflation slows to 4.9% in March as VAT effect lingers

Updated 16 April 2021

Saudi inflation slows to 4.9% in March as VAT effect lingers

  • Saudi inflation jumped to 6.1% after VAT was increased last July
  • Food and beverages were the biggest contributors to inflation in March

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s annual inflation rate fell marginally in March as last July’s increase in value-added tax (VAT) continued to assert an effect on prices.

The consumer price index rose an annual 4.9 percent in March, compared with a 5.2 percent increase in February, the General Authority of Statistics (GASTAT) said in a statement on Thursday.

The inflation rate jumped to 6.1 percent in July 2020 from 0.5 percent in June as the VAT rate was increased from 5 percent to 15 percent and has mainly been drifting lower since.

The biggest contributors to March’s reading were food and beverage prices, which increased 10.2 percent from a year earlier, driven by a 12 percent increase in the cost of meat and 10.9 percent higher prices for vegetables, GASTAT said.

Transport costs rose 10.5% as vehicle prices rose 9.6%, while tobacco gained 13.1 percent and communication added 13.2 percent.

The cost of education fell 9.5 percent year over year, while housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels declined 2.7 percent, driven by a 3.9% drop in housing rentals.

Saudi Arabia’s acting information minister said in November last year the kingdom could review its VAT increase once the coronavirus pandemic ends. Analysts at Al Rajhi Capital predicted the higher VAT rate would generate SR28 billion ($7.5 billion) in 2020 and SR88 billion in 2021 if maintained.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia and the UAE became the first two countries in the Arabian Gulf to introduce VAT.


Amazon conciliatory as US eyes regulation

Updated 16 April 2021

Amazon conciliatory as US eyes regulation

  • Founder Jeff Bezos tells investors his e-commerce empire needs a better “vision” for its workers
  • Before stepping down as CEO, he laid out a new goal for the company to be “Earth’s best employer”

SAN FRANCISCO, USA: US tech giant Amazon on Thursday sounded conciliatory notes as the US government considers stricter regulatory measures against America’s largest digital platforms.
Founder Jeff Bezos told investors his e-commerce empire needs a better “vision” for its workers, just days after an effort to create the company’s first labor union was defeated.
Some Amazon executives had fired off snappy comments at various politicians who supported the labor campaign, but their chief executive took a more circumspect approach to the anti-union victory at its plant in Bessemer, Alabama.
“Does your chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer?” Bezos asked rhetorically in an annual letter to shareholders.
“No, he doesn’t. I think we need to do a better job for our employees.”
In the letter, which was his final before stepping down as chief executive, Bezos laid out a new goal for the company to be “Earth’s best employer and Earth’s safest place to work.”
“Despite what we’ve accomplished, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for our employees’ success,” Bezos said.
The vote count in the contentious unionization drive at the warehouse in the southern state of Alabama last week showed a wide majority of workers rejecting the move.
“Bezos’s admission today demonstrates that what we have been saying about workplace conditions is correct,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the union that vied to represent Amazon workers.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. (AP/file photo)

“But his admission won’t change anything, workers need a union — not just another Amazon public relations effort in damage control.”
Bezos rejected news reports that he said unfairly portray Amazon workers as “desperate souls and treated as robots.”
“That’s not accurate,” Bezos said.
“They’re sophisticated and thoughtful people who have options for where to work.”
Unions and political leaders have argued that Amazon employees face constant pressure and monitoring, with little job protection, highlighting the need for collective bargaining.
Amazon has held firm that most of its workers don’t want or need a union and that the company already provides more than most other employers, with a minimum $15 hourly wage and other benefits.
Bezos had already shown deference to political momentum, announcing support for an increase in corporate taxes sought by US President Joe Biden to help finance a $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
Bezos embraced the move just days after Biden singled out Amazon for avoiding federal income taxes while proposing to boost the corporate tax rate to 28 percent.
“We support the Biden administration’s focus on making bold investments in American infrastructure,” Bezos said.
“We recognize this investment will require concessions from all sides — both on the specifics of what’s included as well as how it gets paid for (we’re supportive of a rise in the corporate tax rate).”
Amazon has been the target of critics for years who claim it pays little or no corporate taxes. The company has defended its policies, saying that its investments offset taxes as intended by the tax code.
Last month, Biden cited a 2019 study showing 91 Fortune 500 companies, “the biggest companies in the world, including Amazon... pay not a single, solitary penny of federal income tax,” adding, “that is just wrong.”
Bezos’s support for raising corporate taxes was echoed Thursday by the Chamber of Progress, a self-described “center-left” tech industry coalition whose roster of members includes Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter.
“Many tech industry leaders view corporate taxes as a patriotic duty and a wise investment in a well-functioning society,” chamber chief Adam Kovacevich said in message posted online.
“President Biden’s proposal to raise corporate tax rates to make major investments in infrastructure is a tradeoff that many in the tech industry can support.”
Meanwhile, political will to regulate Internet giants whose power has grown dramatically during the pandemic has seemed to increase.
US House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline said Thursday that a 16-month investigation makes it clear that Congress must act.
“Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook each hold monopoly power over significant sectors of our economy,” Cicilline said in a statement.
“This monopoly moment must end.”

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