Senate OKs $1.9T Virus Relief Bill 03/07 09:04
An exhausted Senate narrowly approved a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill
Saturday as President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies notched a victory
they called crucial for hoisting the country out of the pandemic and economic
WASHINGTON (AP) -- An exhausted Senate narrowly approved a $1.9 trillion
COVID-19 relief bill Saturday as President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies
notched a victory they called crucial for hoisting the country out of the
pandemic and economic doldrums.
After laboring all night on a mountain of amendments --- nearly all from
Republicans and rejected --- bleary-eyed senators approved the sprawling
package on a 50-49 party-line vote. That sets up final congressional approval
by the House next week so lawmakers can whisk it to Biden for his signature.
The huge measure --- its cost is nearly one-tenth the size of the entire
U.S. economy --- is Biden's biggest early priority. It stands as his formula
for addressing the deadly virus and a limping economy, twin crises that have
afflicted the country for a year.
"This nation has suffered too much for much too long," Biden told reporters
at the White House after the vote. "And everything in this package is designed
to relieve the suffering and to meet the most urgent needs of the nation, and
put us in a better position to prevail."
Saturday's vote was also a crucial political moment for Biden and Democrats,
who need nothing short of party unanimity in a 50-50 Senate they run with Vice
President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote. They hold a slim 10-vote House edge.
Not one Republican backed the bill in the Senate or when it initially passed
the House, underscoring the barbed partisan environment that's characterized
the early days of Biden's presidency.
A small but pivotal band of moderate Democrats leveraged changes in the
legislation that incensed progressives, hardly helping Speaker Nancy Pelosi,
D-Calif., guide the measure through the House. But rejection of their first,
signature bill was not an option for Democrats, who face two years of running
Congress with virtually no room for error.
In a significant sign, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus,
representing around 100 House liberals, called the Senate's weakening of some
provisions "bad policy and bad politics" but "relatively minor concessions."
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said the bill retained its "core bold,
"They feel like we do, we have to get this done," Senate Majority Leader
Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the House. He added, "It's not going to be
everything everyone wants. No bill is."
In a written statement, Pelosi invited Republicans "to join us in
recognition of the devastating reality of this vicious virus and economic
crisis and of the need for decisive action."
The bill provides direct payments of up to $1,400 for most Americans and
extended emergency unemployment benefits. There are vast piles of spending for
COVID-19 vaccines and testing, states and cities, schools and ailing
industries, along with tax breaks to help lower-earning people, families with
children and consumers buying health insurance.
Republicans call the measure a wasteful spending spree for Democrats'
liberal allies that ignores recent indications that the pandemic and economy
was turning the corner.
"The Senate has never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard way," said
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He said Democrats' "top priority
wasn't pandemic relief. It was their Washington wish list."
The Senate commenced a dreaded "vote-a-rama" --- a continuous series of
votes on amendments --- shortly before midnight Friday, and by its end around
noon dispensed with about three dozen. The Senate had been in session since 9
a.m. EST Friday.
Overnight, the chamber looked like an experiment in sleep deprivation.
Several lawmakers appeared to rest their eyes or doze at their desks, often
burying their faces in their hands. At one point, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii,
at 48 one of the younger senators, trotted into the chamber and did a prolonged
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, missed the votes to attend his father-in-law's
The measure follows five earlier ones totaling about $4 trillion enacted
since last spring and comes amid signs of a potential turnaround.
Vaccine supplies are growing, deaths and caseloads have eased but remain
frighteningly high, and hiring was surprisingly strong last month, though the
economy remains 10 million jobs smaller than pre-pandemic levels.
The Senate package was delayed repeatedly as Democrats made eleventh-hour
changes aimed at balancing demands by their competing moderate and progressive
Work on the bill ground to a halt Friday after an agreement among Democrats
on extending emergency jobless benefits seemed to collapse. Nearly 12 hours
later, top Democrats and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps the chamber's
most conservative Democrat, said they had a deal, and the Senate approved it on
a party-line 50-49 vote.
Under their compromise, $300 weekly emergency unemployment checks --- on top
of regular state benefits --- would be renewed, with a final payment Sept. 6.
There would also be tax breaks on some of that aid, helping people the pandemic
abruptly tossed out of jobs and risked tax penalties on the benefits.
The House relief bill, largely similar to the Senate's, provided $400 weekly
benefits through August. The current $300 per week payments expire March 14,
and Democrats want the bill on Biden's desk by then to avert a lapse.
Manchin and Republicans have asserted that higher jobless benefits
discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many
The agreement on jobless benefits wasn't the only move that showed
The Senate voted Friday to eject a House-approved boost in the federal
minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, a major defeat for progressives. Eight
Democrats opposed the increase, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and
other liberals pledging to continue the effort will face a difficult fight.
Party leaders also agreed to restrict eligibility for the $1,400 stimulus
checks for most Americans. That amount would be gradually reduced until, under
the Senate bill, it reaches zero for people earning $80,000 and couples making
$160,000. Those ceilings were higher in the House version.
Many of the rejected GOP amendments were either attempts to force Democrats
to cast politically awkward votes or for Republicans to demonstrate their zeal
for issues that appeal to their voters.
These included defeated efforts to bar funds from going to schools that
don't reopen their doors or let transgender students born male participate in
female sports. One amendment would have blocked aid to so-called sanctuary
cities, where local authorities don't help federal officials round up
immigrants in the U.S. illegally.