Senate passes Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill after voting overnight on amendments, sends measure back to House

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N,Y., prepares his floor speech before walking to the Senate floor on Jan. 22. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara.

WASHINGTON – The Senate approved a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan on Saturday, putting Congress one step closer to fulfilling an electoral promise from President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies to shepherd a swift, equal recovery to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

With its massive price tag, and major expansion of federal social safety net programs, the package is set to count among one of the largest rescue measures in U.S. history, reflecting Democrats’ pledges to erase disparities that long predate the deadly pandemic.

The bill authorizes $1,400 checks to millions of low- and middle-income Americans, bolsters families by providing new yearly child tax benefits, boosts unemployment payments for workers still out of a job, and invests heavily in the country’s attempt to climb back from a public-health emergency that has devastated families, workers, students and businesses alike.

Senate Democrats adopted the measure entirely on party lines, muscling through a marathon, 25-hour debate that forced them to confront dissent from within the party’s own ranks. The House is set to vote on the Senate’s version of the stimulus on Tuesday, teeing up checks and other financial assistance to start to reach Americans as soon as this month.

“I promised the American people help was on the way,” Biden said Saturday, celebrating the first legislative victory of his administration. “Today, I can say we’ve taken one more giant step of delivering on that promise.”

The Senate passage of the measure, known as the “American Rescue Plan,” provided a fresh burst of positive news for the White House. In recent weeks, the Biden administration has presided over an improving job market – even though there are still 9.5 million more unemployed workers than there were before the pandemic. The country also has witnessed a decline in coronavirus infections and an acceleration in a nationwide effort to vaccinate millions of Americans in need.

But the Senate’s vote illustrated the harsh political realities facing Biden and his ambitious economic agenda. The president’s early pledges for unity and bipartisanship collided with the reality of Capitol Hill, where Democrats opted against scaling back the stimulus significantly in order to attract GOP support. It also foreshadowed the difficulties Democratic leaders may face holding together their disparate caucus of progressive and moderate lawmakers during the even tougher fights on the horizon.

Ebullient party leaders still celebrated the stimulus bill’s passage on Saturday, which they said showed Democrats can overcome obstacles – and advance other major priorities still to come.

“We promised them checks; they’re going to get checks. We promised they were going to get a better availability and distribution of vaccines; that will happen,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in an interview.

“All of that is going to happen, and that’s going to change people’s outlook . . . not just to be more Democratic, which I think it will, but to see government can work for them,” he said.

Along with new stimulus checks and unemployment aid, the bill that passed the Senate includes a bevy of programs to lessen businesses’ tax bills, improve city and state governments’ finances, assist Americans in paying for child care and invest in transit and other infrastructure reforms. The aid for families and children could cut poverty by a third, analysts estimate, while making it easier for them to pay their rents or mortgages and purchase necessities including food.

Schools and hospitals are set to receive a major financial boost as the U.S. government labors to respond to the coronavirus while simultaneously preparing to return to regular life more than a year after the pandemic first arrived.

Senate lawmakers began considering the $1.9 trillion stimulus on Friday, embarking on a debate that quickly exposed the fissures in the Democratic caucus – between progressive-minded lawmakers, who are willing to spend big and act aggressively to achieve sweeping economic reforms, and their fellow party moderates, who have preached political unity and fiscal restraint.

Leading up to the vote, some moderate Democrats had secured changes to the coronavirus aid package that narrowed the number of Americans who receive one-time stimulus checks and rethought how some state and local aid might be distributed. An effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour ultimately faltered as well, after some centrist Democrats opposed an effort to override the Senate’s parliamentarian, who had determined it was incompatible with the arcane rules lawmakers used to advance the legislation.

Yet tempers flared most around unemployment benefits, as one of the chamber’s most influential centrist lawmakers, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, sought to lessen the weekly benefits that had been approved by House lawmakers earlier in the month.

Democratic leaders at one point Friday thought they had brokered a deal to address his concerns only to discover Manchin prepared to side with Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio on an even more aggressive amendment to scale back the jobless aid.

Manchin’s dissatisfaction around the unemployment payments soon left the Senate locked in a nine-hour standoff. The tense discussions spilled out onto the Senate floor Friday, as Portman sparred with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., over the need for some of the unemployment relief in the first place.

“Suddenly, if you’re on unemployment insurance you don’t have to pay taxes. But if you’re working, you do have to pay taxes. How does that work?” Portman charged.

Wyden responded that the tax forgiveness only included modest relief for jobless Americans, adding of the GOP’s opposition: “The party that claims to want to help workers on their taxes won’t lift a finger.”

Democrats ultimately resolved the stalemate with a deal that authorized the extra unemployment payments at $300 per week, a lower amount than the House approved, while extending the aid until early September. From there, party lawmakers banded together to jettison dozens of Republican amendments that would have dramatically slashed spending, struck funds set aside for transit systems and local governments or otherwise poisoned the bill.

In doing so, GOP lawmakers repeatedly faulted Democrats for failing to negotiate in good faith over the size and scope of the stimulus package – and for breaking Biden’s promise for political unity in a post-Trump Washington.

“The Senate has never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard way, or through a less rigorous process,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a speech before the chamber adopted the measure.

“Voters gave Senate Democrats the slimmest possible majority. Voters picked a president who promised unity and bipartisanship,” he continued, noting Democrats instead had opted to “ram through” their stimulus bill.

The relief plan nevertheless remained intact as it cleared the chamber on a 50-49 vote, with every Democrat backing it – and every Republican opposing the measure. Schumer, reflecting on the outcome, said the GOP had failed to support a law that many conservative-leaning voters appear to find popular, leaving Democrats no choice but to act on their own.

“The hope is Republicans see now we meant it,” the Democratic leader said. “You don’t work with us then we’ll do it on our own.”

Emboldened, Schumer pledged to return to lingering issues in the coronavirus aid debate, including raising the minimum wage. And he and his fellow Democrats soon are set to start considering new investments in the country’s infrastructure, reforms to immigration laws and rewrites of the U.S. tax code – debates that touch on deep political divides within the caucus about the role of government to tax, regulate and spend.

Schumer, however said he had reason for optimism: “Democrats have more confidence we can get things done if we stay unified.”

 

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