WASHINGTON, March 1 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate will start debating President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill this week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday after Democrats backed down from an effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 as part of it.
The backpedaling did not end hopes of addressing the minimum wage issue in Congress. Democrats and some Republicans have voiced support for the idea of raising the minimum wage, now $7.25, for the first time since 2009, though they disagree on how much.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton last week proposed an increase to $10 per hour, but said employers should also verify the wage is going to workers who are legally in the United States.
But two Senate Democrats acknowledged that passing an increase would be challenging in the 50-50 chamber.
The House of Representatives narrowly approved the COVID-19 package, one of Biden's top priorities, and aim to pass it through Senate through a maneuver known as "reconciliation," which would allow the bill to pass with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes normally required by that chamber's rules.
Senate debate on the COVID-19 bill could begin as early as Wednesday, a Senate Democratic aide said.
Senate Democrats over the weekend gave up on the idea trying to pass the wage hike by adding tax penalties to the COVID-19 bill, after earlier being told Senate rules governing "reconciliation" prevented them including a straight-up wage hike to the legislation.
There are also political hurdles: Some moderate Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin, have rejected the $15 figure as too high and suggested an $11 target could be more realistic.
"We worked through the weekend and it became clear that finalizing 'plan B' with the caucus would delay passage and risk going over the jobless benefits cliff on March 14," one source said. Democrats want the COVID-19 bill signed into law by March 14, when enhanced unemployment benefits expire.
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voiced hope that a wage hike would still happen.
"Senator Sanders is determined to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and he is looking at all available strategies to make it happen," a source close to Sanders said.
The Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, said lawmakers should look for another venue to raise the minimum wage, but that it will be a challenge.
"If it takes some 60 votes or a supermajority of some kind, it's going to be very difficult, obviously," Durbin told reporters.
Another Democrat, Senator Richard Blumenthal, said he was optimistic the Democrats would find a way to raise the wage, "even though we may not have the votes right now."
In the meantime, the Senate faces a looming deadline to pass the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill before the middle of the month, when enhanced unemployment benefits run out for the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, which has killed more than 500,000 in the United States.
Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris may have to cast a tie-breaking vote in a chamber where Republicans control 50 seats and Democrats and their allies control the other 50. Even this outcome depends on all the Democrats staying united behind the first major bill to come through Congress in the Biden administration.
Republicans in Congress say the plan is too expensive and includes things like transportation projects that have nothing to do with relief for COVID-19.
"It's $1.9 trillion, more than half of it won't even be spent in this calendar year ... So how could it be about COVID relief? No one expects a year from now that we'll be in the COVID crisis we are in now," Republican Senator Rob Portman told ABC's "This Week."
The coronavirus measure would pay for vaccines and send a new round of aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments. The big-ticket items include $1,400 direct payments to individuals, a $400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through Aug. 29, and help for those in difficulty paying rents and home mortgages during the pandemic.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)