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Democrats weigh options to pass Biden's massive COVID relief bill

Biden unveils coronavirus response strategy
Biden unveils national coronavirus response strategy as cases surge across the country 09:23

In his inaugural speech on Wednesday, President Biden called on a deeply divided America to embrace bipartisanship, to "join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature."

"This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward," Mr. Biden said.

Democratic leaders in Congress have echoed that sentiment. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech on Wednesday that he would aim to legislate on a bipartisan basis when possible, as "the Senate works best when we work together." Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday that members of Congress "have a responsibility to find bipartisanship where we can."

But it is unclear whether the narrow Democratic majorities in Congress will be able to implement Mr. Biden's ambitious legislative agenda with the support of Republicans. The president unveiled his $1.9 trillion coronavirus economic relief plan last week, which includes $400 billion to arrest the spread of COVID-19 and increase vaccine capabilities; over $1 trillion to assist families needing direct financial support; and $440 billion in emergency funds for cash-poor small businesses and communities.

While the measure has garnered widespread Democratic support, Republicans have previously balked at stimulus bills proposed in the House with high price tags. 

If the bill is unable to attract enough support from Republicans, Democrats have a couple of options: they may pass it through the budget reconciliation process or by eliminating the legislative filibuster. Most bills require 60 votes in the Senate to end debate and set up a full vote on the Senate floor. A filibuster occurs when a bill doesn't receive 60 votes to end debate. 

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could invoke the "nuclear option," a procedural maneuver that would allow the Senate to end debate on a bill with only a simple majority of votes.

Democrats have the narrowest possible majority, just 50 seats in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting any tie-breaking vote.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Schumer against eliminating the filibuster, saying in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday that Democrats should not do so "if the talk of unity and common ground is to have meaning." Some Democrats have also expressed opposition to eliminating the filibuster, worrying that Republicans would then be able to easily reverse Democratic legislation and implement their priorities with only a simple majority once they regain the majority. Without the filibuster, the minority has less power — and Democrats know they'll be in the minority again sooner or later.

The other option — passing the bill through budget reconciliation — would avoid eliminating the filibuster but would still be divisive, as it would allow the measure to pass without any Republican support. But it would also expedite procedures in the House and the Senate, meaning that the bill could be passed more quickly.

However, the legislation could be subject to what is known colloquially as the "Byrd rule," which limits the provisions that can be included in a bill passed through reconciliation. The rule, named for the late Senator Robert Byrd, prohibits "extraneous" provisions in reconciliation, so that only items affecting federal budgetary spending are included. Some of the provisions in Mr. Biden's proposal, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and implementing paid family leave, may not qualify for inclusion under the Byrd rule.

But many Democrats remain optimistic that Mr. Biden's bill will attract Republican support, and are holding the option of reconciliation in reserve.

"I think there's going to be a fair amount of debate, but I'm reasonably optimistic we'll be able to get 60 votes. It's better when we can. Then you've got bipartisan buy-in, and I think that's a much stronger position to work from," Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told CBS News. King is one of 16 lawmakers who has joined a bipartisan coalition in the Senate aiming to pass coronavirus legislation. The group will have a call with Brian Deese, Biden's economic adviser, in the coming days, a source familiar confirmed to CBS News.

Senator Bernie Sanders, the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, told reporters on Wednesday that "we've got to reach out to Republicans."

"I hope many of them understand the crises that we're facing. But if they don't, we've got to go forward with reconciliation," Sanders said.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in her first press briefing on Wednesday that Mr. Biden's "clear preference is to move forward with a bipartisan bill."

"But we are also not going to take any tools off the table for how the Senate, the House and Senate can get this urgent package done," Psaki said.

The Senate will be incredibly busy in the coming weeks. In addition to passing the relief bill — through budget reconciliation or otherwise — Mr. Biden's cabinet nominees must still be confirmed, and once the House sends the article of impeachment against former President Trump, the Senate must conduct its impeachment trial.

Meanwhile, the need for a coronavirus relief bill remains urgent. More than 400,000 Americans have died from the virus, and millions have lost their jobs as a result of the economic fallout.

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