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Happy Holidays, Parents. The Senate’s Gift to You Might Be a Missing $250 Check in January

6 minute read

This time of year is expensive, and especially for parents of young children. A quarter of parents withdraw from retirement accounts, dip into emergency funds, or take a payday loan to cover holiday spending, according to a 2016 survey by investment firm T. Rowe Price.

Now, enter the Grinch—or rather, the Senate’s lackadaisical pace. If Senators fail to pass their version of the $1.75 trillion House-passed social spending bill, which includes an extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC), parents of young kids will no longer receive $250 to $300 per child beginning January 15. And it gets worse: the possible expiration of the CTC on Dec. 31 would coincide with the scheduled end of a nearly two-year moratorium on monthly federal student loan payments, which are, on average, between $200 and $300 per month, according to the Federal Reserve.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, who has been pushing his colleagues to vote on the Build Back Better Act quickly to avoid the CTC disruption, says the impact on young families could be financially crushing.

“I’m deeply worried,” he says, “that there could be a double whammy of both the [federal student loan] forbearance and the CTC going away.”

‘Pulling the rug out’ from underneath young families

The latest, and most generous, iteration of the CTC, known as the expanded CTC, went into effect in July. It increased the CTC amount for roughly 90% of U.S. children. According to an analysis by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), is expected to reduce the number of children experiencing poverty by more than 40% over time. After just one expanded CTC monthly installment, food insecurity rates among households with children dropped by nearly 24%, according to an August Census Bureau report.

Experts say that the absence of that expanded CTC payment—even temporarily—could have a similar impact on child poverty, but in the negative. “If the Senate fails to move forward quickly on Build Back Better, they will pull the rug out from under millions of families who are using this monthly Child Tax Credit payment to pay for rent, for food, for school supplies, and other everyday needs,” CBPP President Sharon Parrott told reporters on a Wednesday press call.

Lawmakers believe President Joe Biden has until Dec. 28 to sign the Senate-passed Build Back Better Act for the IRS to be able to make the January payment on time, Sen. Bennet tells TIME. (The IRS did not respond to a request for comment on the drop-dead date the legislation would have to be signed into law for the beleaguered agency to be able to get the checks out in time.)

An increasingly unlikely timeline

Congress is not on track to meet that deadline. In a letter to colleagues Monday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote that while he still hoped to move on the sweeping legislation “before Christmas and get it to the president’s desk,” other Senators were less optimistic. In conversations with reporters Wednesday, centrist Democrat Senator Joe Manchin did not underscore the urgency of passing the bill in light of the expanded CTC’s expiration.

“Whatever happens [on timing], you should get the bill right,” he said.

Because the Senate is split 50-50, every Democrat in the upper chamber must vote for the bill. Key sticking points that stand in the way of quick passage include concerns about a measure providing Americans with four weeks of paid family leave, tax credits for union-made electric vehicles, and federal tax credits for individuals who pay high state and local (SALT) taxes.

Bennet says he’s confident further changes to the House version of CTC won’t be among the measures that are further watered down. But the slow-rolling negotiations on those final issues are posing threats to the expanded CTC’s on-time delivery in January, sort of like how the global supply chain crunch might prevent the cardigan you ordered for grandma from arriving by Dec. 25.

“It’s time for folks to decide. We’ve been discussing this for a long time,” Rep. Suzan DelBene, a moderate Democrat from Washington State, told TIME on Tuesday. “People have said there’s not a specific timeline that requires a date driving [the Senate passage of BBB], but the Child Tax Credit is one specific piece that absolutely is driving it and why it’s so important we get this done before the holiday.”

A powerful provision

The CTC, first established in 1997, began as a relatively modest credit for middle class families with children. Last March, Congressional Democrats expanded it significantly in the American Rescue Plan—transforming it into what is now essentially a universal child allowance.

Under the new, expanded rules, parents no longer have to earn any income or pay any taxes to qualify for the CTC, meaning the children in the poorest families now qualify for it. Parents also began receiving the money in monthly installments, rather than as a lump sum during tax return season, which allowed them to pay for childrearing expenses as they arose rather than once a year. Additionally, the changes increased the total annual credit from $2,000 per child to $3,600 for a child under age 6 and to $3,000 for children ages 6 to 17. They also enabled families to claim their 17-year-old children for the credit for the first time.

The House-passed version of Build Back Better extends the “fully refundable” aspect of the expanded CTC on a permanent basis. The other significant tweaks—the higher allotments, the monthly installments, and the inclusion of 17-year-olds—would be extended for an additional year if the Senate doesn’t make further tweaks to the measure.

If the Senate somehow manages to pass the legislation and get it to Biden’s desk ahead of the Dec. 28 deadline, it will not be unlike the Seussian green grump that almost stole Christmas. They will have heroically saved the day after being the very thing that initially puts its material components at risk. That is, at least, until next year, when Congress will likely have to vote to extend the expanded CTC all over again.

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com