Senate works through night with virus aid on path to passage

Washington

The Capitol is seen at dusk as work in the Senate is stalled on the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, in Washington, Friday, March 5, 2021. Senators plan to continue to vote on amendments through the night. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate worked through the night and past sunrise Saturday on Democrats’ showpiece $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill after a deal between leaders and moderate Sen. Joe Manchin on emergency jobless benefits broke a logjam that had stalled the package.

The compromise, announced by Manchin, D-W.Va., and a Democratic aide late Friday and backed by President Joe Biden, cleared the way for the Senate to begin a marathon series of votes on amendments before eventual approval of the sweeping legislation. The bill then would return to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval and send it to Biden to sign.

Biden’s foremost legislative priority is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the economy back to health. It would provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans and money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry and subsidies for health insurance.

Shortly before midnight, the Senate began to take up a variety of amendments in rapid-fire fashion. The votes were mostly on Republican proposals virtually certain to fail but designed to force Democrats into politically awkward votes. It was unclear how long into the weekend the “vote-a-rama” would last.

By daybreak Saturday, senators had worked through more than a dozen amendments without substantially changing the overall package.

The lengthy standoff underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years — and the tensions between progressives and centrists — as they try moving their agenda through the Congress with their slender majorities.

Manchin is probably the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, and a kingmaker in the 50-50 Senate. But Democrats cannot tilt too far center to win Manchin’s vote without endangering progressive support in the House, where they have a mere 10-vote edge.

Aiding unemployed Americans is a Democratic priority. But it’s also an issue that drives a wedge between progressives seeking to help jobless constituents cope with the bleak economy and Manchin and other moderates who have wanted to trim some of the bill’s costs.

Biden noted Friday’s jobs report showing that employers added 379,000 workers — an unexpectedly strong showing. That’s still small compared with the 10 million fewer jobs since the pandemic struck a year ago.

“Without a rescue plan, these gains are going to slow,” Biden said. “We can’t afford one step forward and two steps backwards. We need to beat the virus, provide essential relief, and build an inclusive recovery.”

The overall bill faced a solid wall of GOP opposition, and Republicans used the unemployment impasse to accuse Biden of refusing to seek compromise with them. “You could pick up the phone and end this right now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Biden.

But in an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70% of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44% of Republicans.

The all-night amendment process did little to change the outcome.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, sought to swap in Republican centrists’ $650 billion alternative proposal, which Biden had panned as inadequate. That and other amendments failed, including one from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., on the Keystone XL pipeline.

One proposal that did pass, from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., would require schools, within 30 days of receiving money from the bill, to develop publicly available plans for in-person instruction. It appeared designed to fend of Republican criticisms that Biden’s package does not do enough to swiftly reopen schools.

The House approved a relief bill last weekend that included $400 weekly jobless benefits — on top of regular state payments — through August. Manchin was hoping to reduce those costs, asserting that level of payment would discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many economists reject.

As Friday began, Democrats asserted they’d reached a compromise between party moderates and progressives extending emergency jobless benefits at $300 weekly into early October.

That plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., also included tax reductions on some unemployment benefits. Without that, many Americans abruptly tossed out of jobs would face unexpected tax bills.

But by midday, lawmakers said Manchin was ready to support a less generous Republican version. That led to hours of talks involving White House aides, top Senate Democrats and Manchin.

The compromise would provide $300 weekly, with the final check paid on Sept. 6, and includes the tax break on benefits.

Before the unemployment benefits drama began, senators voted 58-42 to kill a top progressive priority, a gradual increase in the current $7.25 hourly minimum wage to $15 over five years. Eight Democrats voted against that proposal, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other progressives vowing to continue the effort in coming months will face a difficult fight.

That vote began shortly after 11 a.m. EST and was not formally gaveled to a close until nearly 12 hours later as Senate work ground to a halt amid the unemployment benefit negotiations. It was among the longest votes in modern Senate history.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., chided Democrats, calling their daylong effort to work out the unemployment amendment a “spectacle.”

“What this proves is there are benefits to bipartisanship when you’re dealing with an issue of this magnitude,” McConnell said.

Republicans criticized the overall relief bill as a liberal spend-fest that ignores that growing numbers of vaccinations and signs of a stirring economy suggest that the twin crises are easing.

“Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.” McConnell said.

Democrats reject that, citing the job losses and numerous people still struggling to buy food and pay rent.

“If you just look at a big number you say, ‘Oh, everything’s getting a little better,'” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It’s not for the lower half of America. It’s not.”

Friday’s gridlock over unemployment benefits gridlock wasn’t the first delay on the relief package. On Thursday Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., forced the chamber’s clerks to read aloud the entire 628-page relief bill, an exhausting task that took staffers 10 hours and 44 minutes and ended shortly after 2 a.m. EST.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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