Senate passes $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill

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WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The Senate passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Saturday morning, after more than 25 hours in session.

The bill was passed on a party-line vote of 50 to 49, with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) not voting due to a family emergency. Had Sullivan been there, Vice President Kamala Harris would likely have been the tie-breaking vote.

Senators pulled an all-night “vote-a-rama” after a compromise on emergency jobless benefits, which broke a more than 9-hour logjam that had stalled the American Rescue plan on Friday.

The Senate now sends the modestly revamped bill back to the House, and then to Biden this coming week for his signature.

“Without a rescue plan, these gains are going to slow,” Biden said Friday. “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.”

But Republicans oppose the bill as a wasteful gift to Democrats’ liberal allies that ignores indications of improvement.

“Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide, seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes expected to lead to approval of the sweeping legislation.

“We have reached a compromise that enables the economy to rebound quickly while also protecting those receiving unemployment benefits from being hit with an unexpected tax bill next year,” said Manchin.

The legislation currently calls for $400 per week in federal jobless benefits through Aug. 29, on top of state benefits, to help Americans who have lost jobs amid the economic trauma caused by the coronavirus.

The compromise would lower that weekly benefit to $300, but extend it through Sept. 6, according to a Democratic aide. The first $10,200 would be tax-free.

The agreement also extends a tax break for businesses for an additional year through 2026.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was supportive of the agreement was reached and “grateful” to the senators who negotiated the deal.

Senators voted 58-42 Friday morning against increasing the minimum wage, but the vote hasn’t been formally gaveled to a close while Senate leadership negotiate the process for the remainder of the vote-a-rama.

Hours after asserting they’d reached a deal between party moderates and progressives over renewing emergency unemployment benefits, lawmakers then said Manchin preferred a less generous Republican version of the payments.

Manchin is probably the chamber’s most conservative Democratic, and a kingmaker in a 50-50 Senate that leaves his party without a vote to spare. With Democrats’ scanty majorities — they have a mere 10-vote House edge — the party can’t tilt too far to the center without losing progressive support.

During an afternoon press conference with Republican senators, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham called out Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for pressuring moderate Democrats against supporting a Republican amendment to reduce unemployment insurance.

“Your inaugural speech rings hollow, my friend. You could pick up the phone and end this right now by leading us to a compromise on unemployment insurance that makes sense for the American people and American economy. I wish you would do it instead of trying to break apart bipartisanship. Try to bring us together,” said Graham in a message to Biden.

“I don’t know where he is,” said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, when asked for Manchin’s latest stance on jobless benefits. Asked if Democrats could simply accept the GOP’s version, Durbin said, “We don’t want to. We want to get this wrapped up.”

That was a reference to a need to eventually move the overall relief bill once again through the House, which has a large number of liberal Democrats and approved an initial version of the legislation last weekend that the Senate has since changed.

The episode tossed fresh complications into the Democrats’ drive to give quick approval to a relief bill that is President Joe Biden’s top legislative goal. And while they still seemed likely to pass the package, the problem underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years as they try moving their agenda through Congress with such slender margins.

The vote was the first in what’s expected to be a lengthy series of amendments on the bill that could extend into the weekend. Republicans are expected to use procedural maneuvers to slow the process.

If approved, the bill will have to be sent back to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives for final passage. Democrats hope Biden can sign the bill into law before March 14, when some of the current benefits run out.

The relief legislation, aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health, will provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans. There’s also money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry, tax breaks for lower-earners and families with children, and subsidies for health insurance.

The chamber reconvened Friday just hours after completing the massive task of reading aloud the entire 628-page bill into the early morning. The roughly half-day delay followed Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote to advance the relief package, and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s objection that forced clerks to read out the full legislation.

On Thursday, Democratic leaders made more than a dozen late additions to the bill that aims to alleviate some of the fallout from the pandemic that has killed more than 520,000 in the U.S. The legislation includes funding for vaccines and medical supplies, extends jobless assistance and provides a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments.

Democratic senators have tweaked the measure to ensure all of their 50 members would support in, steering more aid to smaller states and adding money for infrastructure projects.

Eight Democrats voted against the proposal to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 hourly by 2025, up from its current $7.25., suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other progressives vowing to continue the fight in coming months will face a difficult battle.

In a compromise with moderates revealed earlier Friday, Senate Democrats said that would be reduced to $300 weekly but extended until early October. The plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., would also reduce taxes on unemployment benefits.

But later, lawmakers said Manchin preferred an alternative by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would provide $300 weekly benefits until mid-July.

“I feel bad for Joe Manchin. I hope the Geneva Convention applies to him,” No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota told reporters about the pressure on the West Virginian.

The House plan included $400 per-week payments through Aug. 29.

“The time is now to move forward with big, bold, strong relief for the American people,” said Schumer, who has promised to keep the Senate at work until the bill is passed.

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