Biden’s $1.9T Covid deal stalls out amid benefits fight

Biden’s $1.9T Covid deal stalls out amid benefits fightMarch 5, 2021

Senate Democrats struck a deal on Friday over the unemployment benefits in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, shortly before debate on the bill reached its peak.

But the proposal swiftly hit a roadblock before it could even come up for a vote, with moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) seemingly resisting the agreement and halting activity on the Senate floor.

An amendment readied by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) would change the bill’s boosted weekly federal unemployment payments from $400, as approved by the House, to $300. That benefit would be extended through September instead of August, and the first $10,200 of unemployment insurance would be non-taxable income to help laid off workers avoid surprise tax bills.

The agreement, hatched by both moderate and progressive Democrats, also links up the expiration of unemployment benefits with the current lapse of government funding at the end of September. But a vote on the measure was delayed as Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) held an animated discussion with Manchin on the Senate floor.

One Democratic source said the holdup was Manchin, who was bristling at the Carper amendment and not committed yet to supporting it. It’s not clear whether Manchin will instead support an alternative amendment from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would extend the $300 unemployment benefits until July 18.

Sinema has indicated to Manchin that he could theoretically vote for both Carper’s Democratic amendment and Portman’s GOP amendment in an attempt to end the stalemate.

“The question is, from the Democrats’ standpoint, is how do they prevent us from getting a win,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “They’ve essentially stopped action on the floor so that they can try and persuade all of their members to stay together on some of these votes. I think they’re afraid that they could lose on [unemployment benefits].”

Democrats said they were concerned that approving the GOP changes on unemployment benefits could require another round of negotiations with the House and Biden. That would risk pushing the bill’s consideration closer to March 14, when the current round of boosted benefits is set to expire.

“If it gets to a certain level it may require renegotiating with the House and the White House and then it has to come back to the Senate. And that’s not a desirable outcome,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “The clock’s ticking, so timing is pretty important.”

The Democratic compromise has the White House’s backing, with chief of staff Ron Klain and press secretary Jen Psaki both tweeting statements of support.

“The President believes it is critical to extend expanded unemployment benefits through the end of September to help Americans who are struggling,“ Psaki said, noting that the deal will ultimately “provide more relief to the unemployed“ than the legislation that passed the House last week.

Three hours into the Senate’s first amendment vote, which began late Friday morning, there was no final roll call as Democrats continued to tussle over unemployment benefits. And there’s still plenty more drama ahead, with the GOP seeking to inflict maximum political pain. The protracted ordeal, known as “vote-a-rama,” is widely despised by members of both parties and guaranteed to leave sleepless members running on fumes just ahead of the bill’s passage in the upper chamber, likely Saturday. But there’s no way around it.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed Friday that the Senate would “power through and finish this bill, however long it takes.”

“It would be so much better if we could in a bipartisan way, but we need to get it done,” he said on the floor. “We’re not going to make the same mistake we made after the last economic downturn, when Congress did too little.”

The legislative endurance run — which allows any member to propose an amendment and command a drawn-out roll call vote — is part of the budget reconciliation process, which Democrats are using to pass Biden’s plan without the need for GOP support. Once the vote-a-rama is done, Senate Democrats could pass the bill on Saturday, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. The amended relief bill would then go back to the House, which must approve the changes before sending the legislation to the president’s desk.

The first amendment on raising the minimum wage to $15 hourly by 2025 — offered by Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — was on track to fail as expected, illustrating a broader divide over the issue between progressives and moderates in the Democratic caucus.

Approval of Sanders’ proposal required 60 votes after the Senate parliamentarian, or the upper chamber’s official adviser on procedural matters, said the wage hike violated obscure budget rules guiding the reconciliation process.

Senate Republicans plan to make Democrats pay for leaving them out of the package, forcing votes on dozens upon dozens of amendments after Congress passed five pandemic aid bills with bipartisan support last year. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) on Thursday already forced clerks to read the entire 628-page bill out loud on the floor, which ended at 2:04 a.m. Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell derided the package Friday morning, describing it as a “poorly targeted rush job.”

“In this supposed new era of healing leadership, we’re about to watch one party ram through a partisan package on the thinnest of margins,” McConnell said. “We’re going to try to improve the bill. The millions who elected 50 Republican senators will have their voices heard loud and clear.”

The Senate already slogged through one vote-a-rama last month, amending a budget measure that unlocked the reconciliation process, which allows Democrats to pass Biden’s package with a simple 51-vote majority in the upper chamber. The agony lasted nearly 15 hours, concluding around 5:30 a.m. after lawmakers voted on a raft of largely symbolic amendments.

But now the main event is Biden’s pandemic package itself — and some amendments are expected to receive bipartisan backing. The change to the bill’s extra unemployment benefits, for example, “is the most likely to get bipartisan support,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Previously, Senate Democrats planned to keep the House’s unemployment benefits but moved to more sharply phase out $1,400 stimulus checks.

During the last vote-a-rama, Democrats and Republicans joined together to approve amendments ensuring that $1,400 stimulus checks wouldn’t go to “upper-income taxpayers,” to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving stimulus checks and prevent tax hikes on small businesses during the health crisis, among other issues.

Many other amendments will be fruitless messaging votes.

“The whole term ‘vote-a-rama’ has never sounded to me like it should apply to the ‘world’s greatest deliberative body,’” Blunt added. “It is what it is and it always turns into a largely partisan exercise.”

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