WASHINGTON – The Senate voted on Thursday with the lowest of margins to begin debating a $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, after Democrats made last-minute changes to ensure that they could push President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority through the precariously divided chamber.
Democrats were hoping for Senate approval of the package by next week, in time for the House to quickly approve and pass the measure to Biden. They were in the face of opposition from republicans arguing that the measure huge price tag ignored promising signs that the pandemic and the injured economy were recovering.
Democratic leaders have made more than a dozen late additions to their package, reflecting their need to cement the unanimous support of all of their senators – as well as Vice President Kamala Harris’ decisive vote – to succeed in House 50- 50. The Senate is generally expected to approve the bill and the House to send it to Biden for signature by mid-March, giving him a crucial early legislative victory.
The Senate’s 51-50 vote to start debating the package, with Harris pushing Democrats over the top, underscored how they walked the package through Congress with virtually no margin for error. In the House, their majority is a meager 10 votes.
The bill, aimed at tackling the killer virus and bringing the faltering economy back to health, will provide direct payments of up to $ 1,400 to most Americans. There is also money for COVID-19 vaccines and tests, aid to state and local governments, aid to schools and the airline industry, tax breaks for low income and families with children, and subsidies for health insurance.
“We are not going to be shy in the face of a big challenge,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y.
The new provisions offered articles appealing to all kinds of Democrats. Progressives got money to boost diet programs, federal health care grants for workers who lose their jobs, tax-free student loans, and money for public broadcasting and investigations into consumer protection.
Moderates won funds for rural health care, language guaranteeing minimum amounts of money for small states, and a ban on states receiving aid from using windfall profits to cut taxes . And for everyone, there was money for infrastructure, cultural venues, start-ups and after-school programs.
Even with the late revisions, there was a good chance lawmakers would make another one and vote to cut weekly emergency unemployment benefits from $ 400 to $ 300.
This potential change could also extend these emergency payments for an additional month, until September. It was described by collaborators and a lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations.
Biden and Senate leaders agreed on Wednesday to keep the $ 400 weekly unemployment payments included in the version of the relief bill that the House approved on Saturday. The cut to $ 300 – which seemed likely to happen once the Senate begins an “vote-a-rama” on dozens of amendments later this week – seemed to reflect the need to gain support from moderate Democrats.
It also left House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., The task of keeping the many progressives in her chamber on board. The Liberals already took a hard hit when their No.1 priority – an increase in the federal minimum wage to $ 15 an hour that was included in the House package – was removed from the bill in the Senate for breaking the rules chamber and for lack of support from moderates.
In another case that has satisfied moderates, Biden and Senate Democrats agreed on Wednesday to tighten eligibility for direct checks to individuals. The new provision completely removes payments of $ 1,400 for people earning at least $ 80,000 and couples earning $ 160,000, well below the original limits.
“I hope they are not too wrong,” Representative Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Said of the Senate in an interview. “If they do, there might be problems.”
Congress wants to send the bill to Biden by March 14, the expiration date of a previous round of emergency benefits for people made unemployed by the pandemic.
As soon as the Senate began considering the bill, Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Forced the chamber clerks to start reading the entire 628-page measure aloud. He was the only senator in his office for most of the night, seeming to follow silently, one sheet at a time. As the night dragged on, he got up every now and then and paced the perimeter of the room, reading as he walked. He said earlier that he was doing so “to shed light on this abusive and obscene amount of money.”
Schumer said Johnson “would accomplish little more than a few sore throats for Senate clerks.”
Asked about the GOP delays, Biden told reporters he spoke to Republican lawmakers and added, “We keep everyone informed.” Biden met with Republican senators last month who proposed a plan one-third the size of the Democrats’ proposal, and there have been no signs since of serious discussions.
Johnson’s decision, which would take many hours, highlighted a larger GOP argument: Democrats were passing an overpriced bill without considering the growing number of vaccinations and other signs suggesting that the pandemic ordeal of the country was beginning to weaken.
“Instead of heading into a dark tunnel, we get out of it quickly,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky said.
The economic recovery began to slow at the end of last year as the virus surged, causing a hiring shortage in recent months. Employers added just 49,000 jobs in January and cut 227,000 jobs in December. Economists estimate that the February jobs report released on Friday will show gains of 175,000, not enough to quickly recoup the nearly 10 million jobs lost due to the pandemic-induced recession.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that economic growth will exceed 4% this year without Biden’s bailout. Republicans cite this as proof that the economy is trending upward, but Democrats say strong economic stimulus is still needed to avoid a relapse.
“It’s a crisis that’s still very much with us today, and it’s deadly, extremely serious,” Schumer said.
Associated Press editors Josh Boak, Alexandra Jaffe, and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
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