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Senate votes to kick off marathon debate over $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill

Senate forges ahead with Biden's COVID relief plan
Senate forges ahead with Biden's COVID relief... 01:04

Washington — The Senate will begin debate over President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Friday morning, kicking off a flurry of activity aimed at getting a final bill to the president's desk before several key relief programs expire on March 14. The 628-page bill enjoys support from all 50 Senate Democrats, but Republicans are aiming to make its passage as difficult as possible by forcing votes on a dozens of amendments in a grueling process that could extend into the weekend. 

The so-called "vote-a-rama" will serve as a test of the ability of newly minted Senate Majority Chuck Schumer to keep his caucus in line.

A vote on the motion to proceed to 20 hours of debate succeeded in a party-line vote on Thursday afternoon, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the 50-50 tie. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who had said she is undecided about whether she will vote for final passage, voted against moving forward with debate.

GOP Senator Ron Johnson immediately asked the Senate clerk to read the entire bill aloud, a process that took almost eleven hours and had to be completed before the debate could begin. The Senate adjourned shortly after 2 a.m. Friday, and is scheduled to reconvene later in the morning.

"We all know this will merely delay the inevitable. It will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks who work very hard day in, day out to help the Senate function," Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, before the bill was read. "We Democrats want America to hear what's in the plan. And if the senator from Wisconsin wants to read it, let everybody listen, because it has overwhelming support."

The bill is broadly popular, with recent polling showing that a majority of Americans support it, particularly the provision that provides $1,400 in direct checks to earners making under $75,000.

"The Senate is going to move forward with the bill. No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week. The American people deserve nothing less," Schumer said.

Both parties will have up to 10 hours each to debate the bill, although it is unclear whether all 20 hours will be necessary.

The House passed a version of the bill last week, but the measure considered by the Senate is slightly different. Democrats were still finalizing the bill shortly before the vote to begin debate on Thursday afternoon. 

Some recently added measures, according to a Senate Democratic aide, include $510 million for FEMA and $750 million for states and communities impacted by job and revenue loss in the tourism, travel and outdoor recreation sectors. Another provision sets aside funding for education, including $1.25 billion for evidence-based summer enrichment, $1.25 billion for after school programs and $3 billion for education technology. It would also make COVID-19 student loan relief tax-free.

Congress is using the budget reconciliation process to pass the bill, which limits time for debate and allows legislation to pass with a simple majority, a workaround that avoids the 60-vote threshold that most bills require to advance in the Senate. If every Democrat supports the final bill, with Harris casting a tie-breaking vote, it would pass without any Republican support.

But Republicans are critical of the size of the bill and frustrated that Democrats are using the reconciliation process, arguing that they are taking a partisan route rather than working across the aisle. Democrats reply that they don't need to waste time negotiating with Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold and pass a smaller package.

In retaliation, Republican senators aim to make the debate and amendment process politically painful for Democrats. The most excruciating part of the process is the "vote-a-rama," wherein senators will vote on dozens of amendments in quick succession. "Vote-a-ramas" typically take several hours, often ending early in the morning. Johnson told reporters Thursday that he was setting up a three-shift schedule to ensure that "all the amendments that are offered are actually voted on," possibly extending the "vote-a-rama" for several more hours.

"It seems like we've always offered a couple of hundred amendments on the Republican side. You get a couple of those voted on and people tire out. I'm just setting up a process that keeps us from tiring out," Johnson said. Johnson has also suggested reading out every amendment, which could extend the process for days.

However, it's unclear how popular this strategy will be with his fellow Republicans. GOP Senator James Lankford told reporters that Republicans would "make decisions as we go" to determine how long senators would be voting on amendments.

"At some point, there has to be an end. And we're trying to be able to determine what that end is," Lankford said.

Senator John Thune, the minority whip, told reporters that the "vote-a-rama" could go on for an "indefinite" amount of time. He said it was "possible" that the Senate clerks would finish reading the bill at around midnight, and the Senate would go home to sleep while the debate clock was ticking. Then they could return to Senate on Friday with a few hours of debate left, followed by the "vote-a-rama."

"That seems reasonable, seems possible. Requires some level of cooperation," Thune said.

The "vote-a-rama" process allows the minority party to force the majority to go on the record with politically painful votes. However, amendments require support from a simple majority to be added to the bill, and most amendments proposed by Republicans are expected to fail.

"My guess is it's not likely that many of our amendments will get any Democrat support, so I think it's very unlikely that that any Republicans will support the final bill," GOP Senator Mitt Romney said.

The Senate parliamentarian ruled last week that the Senate could not include a provision raising the minimum wage to $15 under budget reconciliation rules, but Senator Bernie Sanders has said he will introduce an amendment to do so during the "vote-a-rama." Sanders also announced Thursday that he would offer an amendment to raise the tipped minimum wage, which is currently $2.12, to $14.75 over seven years. However, some Democrats have expressed opposition to raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, meaning the amendment may fail.

Jack Turman contributed reporting.

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