Dems attempt to push through school funding, wage increase

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President Joe Biden talks with reporters after arriving on the South Lawn of the White House, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON – House Democrats muscled past Republicans on portions of President Joe Biden's pandemic plan, including a proposed $130 billion in additional relief to help the nation's schools reopen and a gradual increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Democrats on the Education and Labor Committee say schools won't be able to reopen safely until they get an infusion of federal funding to repair building ventilation systems, buy protective equipment and take other steps recommended by federal health officials. The plan faces opposition from Republicans who want to tie new school funding to reopening.

The panel met Tuesday to craft its portion of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that tracks with Biden's plan for battling the pandemic and reviving a still staggering economy. Democrats hope to rush the bill to Biden for his signature by mid-March, using a special budget-related process allowing certain legislation to be approved by a simple majority.

Rep. Bobby Scott, chair of the Education and Labor Committee, dismissed complaints from Republicans who objected to use of the process.

“We must address the urgent needs of the people now," said Scott, D-Va., “The multiple crises affecting our communities will grow worse every day if we do not act. We must recognize that we cannot afford to prioritize process over the urgent needs of people across this country.”

House Republicans attempted dozens of changes to the legislation at a hearing that stretched late into the evening. They proposed amendments to limit funding only to schools offering in-person instruction, or to steer aid to families if their schools continued operating online. On the wage increase, they sought to exempt small businesses or certain rural areas. It appeared all of the amendments would be defeated.

Biden has made reopening most of the nation's K-8 schools within his first 100 days in office a key goal. The issue has become increasingly heated as some school districts face gridlock with teachers who have refused to support reopening until their demands are met. Biden's plan for $130 billion in school funding is in addition to more than $8 billion from previous relief packages.

In a tweak to Biden's plan, the Democratic proposal would require schools to reserve at least 20% of the funding for efforts to address learning loss, including after-school programs and summer classes. The bill also matches Biden's proposed $40 billion for colleges and universities but, unlike the White House plan, makes private colleges eligible for relief.