The number-one item on Democrats’ agenda this year—a sweeping coronavirus relief package—has cleared its biggest hurdle on the way to becoming law: the evenly-divided U.S. Senate.
On Saturday afternoon, the Senate passed the $1.9 trillion bill on a strictly party-line vote: All 50 Democrats voted in favor of the bill and all 49 Republicans opposed it, but Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) was absent for the vote, sparing Vice President Kamala Harris from having to break a tie. The House must now approve the new version of the bill in a separate vote before it can become law.
The process wasn’t meant to be easy, but the bill’s journey to passage was downright shambolic, even by congressional standards. The Senate was in session for over 24 hours, voting, debating, and considering amendments to the mammoth legislation. Much of the delay stemmed from one member, centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), whose reservations about the bill’s unemployment benefits unexpectedly froze the floor for nearly 12 hours on Friday as Democratic leadership and the White House frantically worked him to support the latest deal.
Manchin ultimately got on board with the party’s preferred amendment to the unemployment plan, which reduces monthly jobless benefits to $300 but extends them an additional month. However, he also supported a GOP plan to keep benefits at $400 but cut them off in June—an amendment that passed but will be superseded by the Democratic plan, aides said.
The bill includes direct checks of up to $1,400 for hundreds of millions of Americans, jobless aid of $300 until September, child tax credit of up to $3,600 per chid, $130 billion in aid for schools, and billions of dollars for vaccine distribution and relief for states, cities, small businesses, and more.
From midnight until noon on Saturday, the Republicans called votes on a lengthy string of amendments to the bill, nearly all of which failed but were largely intended to put political pressure on Democrats.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), for example, introduced an amendment that would have denied federal funding to any colleges and K-12 schools that allowed transgender girls to play on girls sports teams—an issue that took on increased significance for Republicans last month after Biden signed an executive order directing colleges to allow transgender girls to play. The amendment ultimately failed 50-49, with Manchin breaking with his party to vote in favor and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) breaking with hers to vote against it.
Shortly thereafter, Republicans tried and failed to insert another amendment that would have barred COVID relief money from funding elective abortions and insurance plans that cover them. They also used the amendment-fest to needle Democrats on immigration, forcing a vote to deny stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants.
“This is the biggest thing that most of us have ever been involved in… I don’t remember being this excited about this job.”
Amid the slog, Senate Democrats projected sunshine and positivity for legislation they believe is badly needed and also widely popular with the public, despite the lack of GOP support.
“We’ve been successful all night, for 12 hours or so, in beating back all kinds of culture warfare issues, all kinds of issues that take money from pockets of low income people, all kinds of issues that they’re taking that are weakening this bill,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) on MSNBC Saturday morning. “This is the biggest thing that most of us have ever been involved in… I don’t remember being this excited about this job.”
The so-called American Rescue Plan still faces more hurdles on its way to President Biden’s desk, however, and the legislative drama may not be finished yet. The Democratic-controlled U.S. House passed its version of the relief bill last week, and it has much in common with the Senate’s legislation: both offer hundreds of billions of dollars to speed vaccine rollout, prop up the finances of state and local governments, and to throw struggling people a financial lifeline with direct checks and unemployment benefits.
But the Senate bill is different in a few important ways, which means that the House will have to vote again to approve those changes before the legislation can be sent to Biden. The House bill kept unemployment benefits at $400, and it also lacked the tightened eligibility requirements for receiving $1,400 stimulus checks that came about after a Senate-White House deal. That change puts roughly 12 million fewer people in line for the benefits.
Notably, the Senate’s bill lacks a key House provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15, after the Senate’s nonpartisan rules enforcer advised that it didn’t comply with the specific rules for fast-tracking legislation that Democrats are using to help speed the bill to Biden’s desk.
Democrats want Biden’s signature on the bill to be dry before March 14, when current pandemic unemployment benefits expire for millions of Americans. House progressives, who fought for a $15 wage and expansive benefits, have been inclined to back whatever the Senate sends them—but some found their limits tested by the power play from Manchin and moderates.
Commenting on the changes from the House bill, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) asked on Twitter, “What are we doing here? I’m frankly disgusted with some of my colleagues and question whether I can support this bill.”
Internal Democratic bargaining wasn’t the only reason that the de facto March 14 deadline is closer than many Democrats would like. Staunch Republican opposition has slowed it down: On Thursday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) forced the Senate’s clerks to read every word of the nearly 700-page bill aloud on the floor—an exercise in raw obstructionism that delayed the chamber’s consideration of the bill by over 10 hours.
While past iterations of COVID relief have been largely bipartisan, Republicans have coalesced around opposing Biden’s first major legislative effort on the grounds it is too pricey, not targeted enough to the neediest people, and full of so-called “blue state bailouts” to local governments, although many Republican-run jurisdictions would receive relief funds.
Shortly before the voting spree, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) put the onus on Democrats for breaking the “bipartisan streak” of pandemic relief. “They are dead-set on ramming through an ideological spending spree packed with non-COVID-related policies,” he charged.
Democrats explained away their lack of GOP support by frequently citing public opinion polling showing that a bipartisan majority of Americans backed their plan. A Morning Consult/POLITICO poll from Wednesday found that 77 percent of all voters backed the plan and over half of GOP voters backed it, even when it was labeled as a Democratic proposal.
A triumphant Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said shortly before Saturday’s vote that “this bill will deliver more help to more people than anything the federal government has done in decades.”
“A new day has come and we tell the American people: help is on the way,” said Schumer. “Help is on the way.”
—with additional reporting by Emily Shugerman