Senate Democrats muscled through the votes to begin consideration of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill on Thursday afternoon, putting the party on course to clinch a new stimulus law well before its official March 14 deadline.
But Republicans are setting up a grueling debate that appears likely to carry the partisan battle into the weekend. Early Thursday afternoon, Democrats rallied their 50 senators to kick off debate on their own version of the stimulus bill, a key test vote that demonstrated that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has the support to prevail in the end, whenever it may be.
After frantic intraparty negotiations, Senate Democrats finalized their bill and immediately put it on the floor before most senators had a chance to read it. But the party had already reached broad agreement on stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, giving Democrats the confidence to move forward.
"No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill, this week. The American people deserve nothing less," Schumer said on Thursday.
Now Republicans can control exactly how excruciating final passage becomes.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) immediately forced the Senate clerk to read all 628 pages of the Senate substitute. Senate Democratic leaders estimate that it will take four to five hours to complete that task, though Johnson believes it may take longer. Then Republicans can use up to 20 hours of debate time, and then force unlimited amendments votes if they so choose.
"Historically what’s happened is … we offer a couple of hundred amendments on the Republican side," Johnson said. "And we get a couple of dozen voted on and people tire out. I’m coming up with a process that keeps people from tiring out. I’m getting sign ups. I’m laying out a three-shift schedule."
Schumer vowed that the Senate would stay in session this week until the bill is passed and dismissed Johnson’s effort as a delay tactic that "will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks." But he added that Democrats would welcome Johnson’s reading of the bill.
Thursday’s business took place against the backdrop of heightened security concerns at the Capitol. The House cleared out Wednesday — one day ahead of schedule — amid the threat of another QAnon-inspired attack on the building. Senate Democrats required an appearance from Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie-breaking vote on the relief package, while police and National Guard troops beef up their presence around the Capitol complex.
The bill’s so-called vote-a-rama now may begin on Friday, instead of on Thursday, as a result of delays on Wednesday in getting a Congressional Budget Office score for the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion bill. That’s a key step in the process, ensuring Democrats can use budget reconciliation and its simple majority requirement instead of needing 60 votes — and the support of 10 Republicans. CBO has since assured that the bill gels with the arcane budget rules guiding its passage, a Democratic aide said Thursday morning.
Johnson and other Republicans are vowing to make the vote-a-rama lengthy and uncomfortable for Democrats with what they view as tough votes. And timing is important: Enhanced unemployment benefits shut off on March 14 and Democrats say they need to pass their bill well in advance to give states time to avoid missing payments. Plus, the House will still need to approve the Senate’s changes.
Though Senate Democrats and Biden agreed to keep unemployment bonus payments at $400 per week through August, mirroring the House proposal, some Republicans or centrist Democrats could offer amendments trimming that down to $300 per week. Increasing the intrigue, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has not officially decided she’s against the bill, and Biden and Democrats would be ebullient to receive any GOP support. She voted against proceeding to the bill on Thursday.
Biden and Democrats also agreed to more narrowly target the next round of $1,400 stimulus payments, phasing them out completely for single filers at $80,000 and joint filers at $160,000. But Democrats will have to stick together to make sure their carefully negotiated truce is not upset by GOP amendments. In the last amendment series, moderate Democrats infuriated progressives by approving an amendment barring undocumented immigrants from getting stimulus checks. House Democrats are watching closely.
Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden said he “would have preferred the House threshold” on checks, but that he still thought the bill was in a good place. He acknowledged that the party was still tweaking the bill as of Thursday morning.
Senate Democrats made a number of changes to the bill, including changes to state and local aid aimed at ensuring that small states receive more money and that every state receives at least the same share that it got from the massive stimulus bill passed last March. Democrats are also bolstering subsidies meant to help laid off workers stay on their health insurance, in addition to adding $10 billion for infrastructure projects, $8.5 billion for rural health care providers and $200 million more for Amtrak.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that House Democrats would like to study the compromise on unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, but said, “So far, so good.”
Some progressives seemed skeptical of the deal, but stopped short of saying it would jeopardize the near-lockstep support that Pelosi needs to get the amended Senate bill through the House in the coming days.
“I just — I don’t like that this is being narrowed,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I feel like the survival checks are the easiest, simplest, most popular, populist, proposal. But let me take a look at what it actually means in terms of numbers of people.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is also planning to offer an amendment that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, despite the Senate parliamentarian ruling that including that provision would violate Senate rules. While the amendment is expected to fail, it will put Democrats on record over whether they support the boost. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana are among those whose vote will be watched on the Sanders amendment.
“I’d love to have anybody get up here and tell me that you can live on $7.25 an hour, eight bucks an hour,” Sanders said on the floor Thursday afternoon. “You can’t.”