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Senate passes Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill after "vote-a-rama"

Senate passes $1.9 trillion COVID relief package
Senate passes $1.9 trillion COVID relief package 10:32

Washington — The Senate approved President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package Saturday, over 24 hours after opening debate on the bill. A grueling amendment process, known as a "vote-a-rama," was stalled for nearly 12 hours on Friday due to disagreements within the Democratic caucus over an unemployment insurance benefit.

The final vote was 50-49, with all Democrats voting in favor of the bill and all Republicans voting against it. The passage of the bill was met with cheers and applause from Democrats, celebrating the passage of one of Mr. Biden's key priorities. Vice President Kamala Harris did not need to visit the Capitol to break any ties, as GOP Senator Dan Sullivan left due to a family emergency on Friday.

Democrats took a victory lap after the passage of the bill, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer telling reporters after the vote that "it's a great day for this country." Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders called the bill "the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working families in the modern history of this country."

President Biden dubbed the plan "historic" during an address on Saturday. 

"For over a year the American people were told they were on their own," he said, and later added, "This nation has suffered too much for much too long, and everything in this package is designed to relieve the suffering and to meet the most urgent needs of the nation."

The president noted that 85% of American households will now soon receive direct payments of $1,400 per person, and a "typical middle class family of four" will get $5,600. "That means the mortgage can get paid. That means maintaining the health insurance you have. It's going to make a big difference in so many lives in this country," he said. 

Senator Debbie Stabenow said that the passage of the bill was an emotional moment for Democrats.

"People on the floor, in our caucus, it was almost like tears in their eyes. I mean, I felt it," Stabenow said.

The House will vote on the amended legislation on Tuesday, after the House passed a slightly different version of the bill last week. If it is approved by the House, it will then go to Mr. Biden's desk for his signature. Schumer expressed confidence that the Senate version of the bill would pass in the House.

"They feel like we do, we have to get this done," he said.

The economic relief legislation 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. Senate Democrats reached a deal to limit the eligibility for who receives direct checks earlier this week. Other provisions in the bill include an additional $300 weekly jobless benefits through September 6, a child allowance of up to $3,600 per family, $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, and $14 billion for vaccine distribution.

Mr. Biden thanked the American people for their "overwhelming bipartisan support" of the package, without which "this would not have happened," he said.

The final vote came after an arduous "vote-a-rama," in which the Senate debated, considered and voted on 39 amendments over a 25 hour period. The process was initially delayed by a deadlock involving Senator Joe Manchin, moderate from West Virginia who has become a critical player in the evenly divided Senate.

On Friday evening, Senate Democrats reached a deal accepted by Manchin, after he had an extended meeting with Schumer. The compromise amendment extended the additional unemployment insurance benefits through September 6, makes the first $10,200 of unemployment insurance benefits non-taxable for households with incomes under $150,000, and extends tax rules regarding excess business loss limitations to 2026.

The compromise amendment was approved by a vote of 50 to 49 shortly after 1 a.m. It was almost identical to an amendment proposed under a deal reached Friday morning by progressives and moderates, with the only change being the income limit for the non-taxable benefits.

Mr. Biden stressed during his address Saturday that the deal extended assistance for the 11 million Americans who lost jobs due to the pandemic — and whose benefits were "about to expire," he said.

Manchin has assumed a powerful role in the caucus because he's one of the deciding votes in an evenly divided Senate. Democrats have 50 seats, which means that there is no room for dissent in the ranks: losing the support of a single senator means losing the overall vote. Earlier on Friday, Manchin had appeared to lean towards supporting an amendment introduced by GOP Senator Rob Portman that would have cut the unemployment insurance benefit from $400 to $300 and extended it only through June.

Stimulus Package Faces Lengthy Final Challenge Of Senate Votes
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, center, speaks to members of the media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, March 5, 2021.  Bloomberg/Contributor

The "vote-a-rama" initially began on Friday morning with a failed vote on an amendment proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders that would have raised the federal minimum wage. But the vote stayed open even after all senators had voted, preventing the next amendment from being considered and allowing Democrats to work behind the scenes to convince Manchin to support their unemployment insurance benefit amendment.

After nearly 12 hours, the vote on Sanders' amendment closed shortly before 11 p.m., making it the longest vote in modern Senate history. The "vote-a-rama" then resumed shortly before midnight with a vote on Portman's unemployment insurance benefit amendment, which passed by a vote of 50-49, with Manchin's support. However, that amendment will be canceled out by the Democratic amendment, which was voted on a few hours later and which Manchin also supported. This compromise amendment will be included in the final bill.

Manchin acknowledged to reporters after the final vote on the bill on Saturday afternoon that negotiations "took longer than they should've," but expressed contentment with the final bill.

"We got it done and we got a better deal," Manchin said.

The Senate convened on Friday morning with two hours of debate, followed by a vote on Sanders' amendment, which would have raised the untipped minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, and the tipped minimum wage to $14.75 over seven years. The Senate parliamentarian ruled last week that the Senate could not include a provision raising the minimum wage to $15 under budget reconciliation rules, so GOP Senator Lindsey Graham raised a point of order challenging the amendment.

Manchin, as well as Democratic Senators Jon Tester, Jeanne Shaheen, Kyrsten Sinema, Chris Coons, Tom Carper and Maggie Hassan, joined Republicans in voting against allowing the provision to be included. Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, also voted against adding the minimum wage hike to the bill. Manchin and Sinema in particular had previously expressed their opposition to raising the minimum wage to $15.

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, 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 aimed to make the amendment process politically painful for Democrats, with mixed results. One such vote could was on an amendment to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving stimulus checks. During the "vote-a-rama" last month on the budget resolution to set up the reconciliation process, eight Democrats joined all Republicans in voting for the amendment, infuriating progressives. However, when the Senate voted on the amendment on Saturday morning, it failed without any Democratic support.

The Senate did approve two amendments by voice vote, one on veterans' education and one on aiding homeless children. The latter amendment was proposed by GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski and Manchin, and will dedicate $800 billion in education funding specifically for homeless children. The final amendment considered during the "vote-a-rama" was a bipartisan amendment sponsored by GOP Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Mark Warner, extending protections for federal contractors through September 30.

The Senate version of the bill differs from the House bill in several ways, including the amendments that passed on Friday and Saturday. 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.

A vote on the motion to proceed to debate on the legislation succeeded in a party-line vote on Thursday afternoon, with Harris breaking the 50-50 tie. Although budget reconciliation rules allow for up to 20 hours of debate ahead of the "vote-a-rama," Republicans and Democrats only used two, after GOP Senator Ron Johnson forced the Senate clerk to read the entire bill aloud on Thursday evening. The process took almost 11 hours, ending early Friday morning. The Senate agreed to convene later Friday morning for up to three hours of debate, but any time saved by limiting the debate time was quickly lost with the nearly 12-hour delay over the unemployment insurance amendment.

"The bottom line is this: This plan puts us on the path to beating this virus," Mr. Biden said Saturday. "This plan gives those families that are struggling the most the help and the breathing room they need to get through this moment. This plan gives small businesses in this country a fighting chance to survive. And one more thing," he added, "this plan is historic."

Jack Turman and Audrey McNamara contributed reporting.

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