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Senate passes $1.9 trillion COVID relief resolution after all-night "vote-a-rama"

U.S. COVID-19 deaths top 450,000
U.S. COVID-19 deaths top 450,000 as Washington debates relief pakage 03:47

Washington — The Senate passed a budget resolution very early Friday morning, a key step for the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal without any Republican votes. The 51-50 vote, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie, came after an all-night marathon "vote-a-arama."

The "vote-a-rama" included 41 votes with dozens of amendments considered. Harris cast her first tie-breaking votes as vice president, allowing the resolution to finally pass shortly before 6 a.m. with support from all 50 Democratic senators.

The Senate voted to reject a major component of the Biden plan — raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. In a voice vote, senators narrowly approved an amendment from Iowa Republican Joni Ernst that would ban the increase during a pandemic. However, the increase could be restored when the final measure is hashed out.

Passing a budget resolution is part of a process known as reconciliation, which allows legislation to pass in the Senate with only a simple majority instead of the typical 60-vote threshold, meaning Democrats would be able to green-light it without any Republican votes. But Republicans forced Democrats to go on the record with a series of votes on a slew of amendments in the politically painful "vote-a-rama."

The House passed the Senate-approved budget resolution later on Friday. Now that both houses of Congress have approved the resolution, which serves as the vehicle for the legislation, committees can begin formulating a reconciliation bill itself. The final reconciliation bill will receive 20 hours of debate, and then another "vote-a-rama" before a vote in both chambers.

A "vote-a-rama" is a Senate tradition in which the minority party attempts to put political pressure on the majority for trying to pass controversial legislation and can often last into the early hours of the morning. This one did.

"We're going to put senators on the record. Expect votes to stop Washington from actively killing jobs during a recovery — like terminating the Keystone pipeline; that job-killing, one-size-fits-all minimum wage hike; and whether to bar tax hikes on small businesses for the duration of this emergency," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday, calling the budget "phony" and "partisan."

Many of the amendments brought forward by Republicans failed. But others received bipartisan support, such as an amendment proposed by Republican Senator Roger Wicker and Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema to boost the restaurant industry, which was approved with a vote of 90-10.

The Senate also approved a bipartisan amendment introduced by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican Senator Susan Collins to prevent "upper-income citizens" from receiving stimulus checks, although "upper income" was not defined. Another amendment that passed by a smaller bipartisan margin was introduced by GOP Senators Todd Young and Tom Cotton, prohibiting the government from providing direct checks to undocumented immigrants.

In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz urged Americans to tune out the "vote-a-rama," calling it a political stunt.

"We need to remember what this is all about. This is not about a goofy 10-hour or 12-hour or 15-hour process where we stack amendments and try to set each other up, that we'll somehow trick someone into taking a bad position that can be turned into a campaign advertisement," Schatz said. "It is nonsense, and everybody should ignore it if they can. Do anything to not watch vote-a-rama."

In 2017, Republicans used budget reconciliation to pass a tax cut that cost nearly $2 trillion, and which primarily benefited higher-income Americans and businesses. Democrats used the "vote-a-rama" process during the debate over that legislation in an unsuccessful attempt to bog down the bill with amendments.

Brian Dakss contributed reporting.

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