Senate approves Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan

The Senate passed President Joe Biden’s nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package Saturday morning after a grueling overnight session, delivering on the White House’s first major legislative priority.

The 50-49 vote, entirely along party lines, came after the Senate remained in session for more than 24 hours of marathon votes. Senate Republicans sought to amend the legislation but Senate Democrats largely stuck together to defeat any major changes to the bill — one of the largest federal aid packages in history.

“A new day has come and we tell the American people help is on the way,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), shortly before passage. The bill “is broader, deeper, and more comprehensive in helping working families and lifting people out of poverty than anything Congress has seen or accomplished in a very long time.”

Schumer managed to keep his 50-member caucus mostly united throughout the process, but it was not without some last-minute drama: The so-called vote-a-rama session was delayed for more than 10 hours on Friday, as Senate Democrats reached a last-minute deal with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on the size of federal unemployment insurance benefits.

The legislation will now head back to the House. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the House would take it up Tuesday, putting the bill on track to be sent to Biden’s desk before federal unemployment benefits expire March 14. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team are not anticipating any issues within their caucus, according to Democratic sources.

Senate Republicans have criticized Democrats for using a process known as budget reconciliation to pass their $1.9 trillion package along party lines and lambasted the legislation as a poorly targeted effort to pass liberal priorities.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., walks on Capitol Hill as the Senate works to complete the Democrats' $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, in Washington, Saturday, March 6, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“The Senate has never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard way,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “The voters gave the Democrats the slimmest majority. The voters picked a president who promised bipartisanship. The Democrats’ response is to ram through what they call ‘the most progressive domestic legislation in a generation’ on a razor-thin margin.”

The Senate bill includes several changes from the version passed by the House last week. The House’s legislation would have increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which the Senate parliamentarian determined violated Senate rules. While Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sought to overrule the parliamentarian and pass the minimum wage hike as an amendment to the package Friday, eight Senate Democrats joined Republicans in voting against it, a sign that it had no chance of passing.

Democrats also agreed to an amendment from Manchin that would provide $300 a week in payments through Sept. 6, rather than the $400 a week through August that the bill originally laid out. The change would also provide up to $10,200 in tax relief for laid off workers for households with incomes under $150,000 a year.

House Democrats appear on track to approve the Senate’s changes. While progressives had hoped for a last-ditch way to force the minimum wage hike into the bill, Sanders’ amendment proved that Senate Democrats did not have the votes for such a move.

And centrists, some of whom had been uneasy about the size of the package, are likely to embrace Manchin’s tweaks on unemployment benefits — providing them political cover, as well, to support the final deal.

The coronavirus relief package is the first major piece of legislation passed under Schumer’s new Senate majority.

The sweeping package provides $1,400 stimulus checks — though with slightly tighter eligibility restrictions than previous bills — and $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, both which have been huge Democratic priorities. It also includes $130 billion to help reopen schools.

"This is the best day of my Senate life," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). "We won on so many big things, we passed so many big things, and the public won."

In this image from video, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during debate in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Saturday, March 6, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

Biden had heavily lobbied Senate Democrats to support his proposal, including participating in their weekly caucus call this past Tuesday. He also held a call with Senate moderates on Monday to discuss ways to target the package and personally called Manchin on Friday, when he appeared to be vacillating between the Democrats’ unemployment insurance proposal and a competing proposal from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

The president thanked the Democratic senators Saturday and singled out Schumer in particular. "It obviously wasn’t easy," he said. "It wasn’t always pretty. But it was so desperately needed, urgently needed."

While Biden did initially meet with some moderate Republicans in February to discuss a compromise bill, Democrats and Republicans had starkly different views on the overall price tag of the package. Biden and Senate Democrats repeatedly called for a “big” and “bold” package with a huge boost in anti-poverty programs.

But Senate Republicans argued that that much of the money from previous packages remains unspent and that the economy is headed towards recovery.

In the end, no Republicans voted in favor, a disappointment for Biden. It was unclear until the final vote tally whether Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) would vote in favor of passing the coronavirus relief package. Murkowski had spent the past week educating Biden administration officials and Senate Democrats about the challenges facing her state, amid the economic and health crisis. But she ultimately opposed the bill.

"She’s having discussions on some things that are important to her state but I always kind of believed in the end she would end up where she did," Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said. "We don’t pressure people but I’m glad she found her way to be with the team."

Amid a barrage of messaging amendments meant to squeeze both parties, senators on Saturday morning adopted by voice vote a bipartisan amendment that would direct $800 million to services for homeless children. And almost every senator adopted an amendment that would extend pay relief for federal contractors through the end of September.

In addition to the change to the bill’s unemployment insurance provisions, Senate Democrats also approved an amendment from Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) early Saturday morning that requires schools to have a safe return plan for returning students to the classroom within 30 days of receiving aid.

Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle, Caitlin Emma and Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.

Source: Politico

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