Biden Stimulus Faces Lengthy Final Test of Senate Votes
(Bloomberg) -- Senate Democrats face a gantlet of Republican attempts to rein in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package in a marathon session of votes that will extend the timetable for passage into the weekend.
Democratic leaders plan to rough it through the amendment process and emerge with a bill that gets the votes of all 50 Democrats without risking a revolt from progressives in the House, which will have to agree on the Senate version before it goes to Biden for his signature.
The president has already agreed to revisions to keep moderate Senate Democrats on board, including narrowing the eligibility for direct payments to millions of Americans. Incentives have also been added, including more money for rural hospitals, health insurance subsidies for the unemployed and broadband.
But further changes are still possible. Even a single Democrat joining Republican efforts in the 50-50 Senate can defeat Biden’s proposal to increase the pandemic unemployment bonus from $300 to $400 a week, slash further the number of people eligible for $1,400 stimulus checks or strike any other provision in the bill.
“I think there’s at least a chance that one or two Democrats could join all of us and spend a little bit less,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a Fox News interview this week. He added he expects the final bill to pass on a party-line vote.
The stark partisan divide was seen in the first vote, on whether to proceed with consideration of the measure. Vice President Kamala Harris was called in to break the 50-50 tie.
Democrats are racing to finish the package this week, have the House quickly approve the Senate’s changes and send it to Biden’s desk before the March 14 expiration of pandemic unemployment benefits.
Republicans have vowed to slow the process. On Thursday, after the bill was introduced and the Senate voted to proceed, Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, demanded the Senate clerk read the entire 628-page text aloud, a formality that is usually waived off. That process took nearly 11 hours, wrapping up just after 2 a.m. Washington time on Friday.
Republicans are also promising a raft of amendment votes, which could push consideration of the measure well into the weekend.
“No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor.
Schumer and other Democratic leaders continued negotiations with moderate holdouts and others seeking changes to the House-passed bill up to the last minute.
The bill introduced Thursday came with assorted changes from the House version negotiated among Senate Democrats, including an $8.5 billion boost for rural hospitals, $10 billion for infrastructure including broadband, and new tweaks governing how the $350 billion in state and local aid will be spent.
Other changes intended to draw support include $750 million for the Economic Development Administration to help industries like tourism, $510 million for emergency food and shelter disaster assistance and $200 million more for Amtrak. Funding for public broadcasting and the Federal Trade Commission was also increased.
Democrats had already agreed to narrow eligibility for relief payments to win support of more centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. Asked at the White House Thursday whether he was comfortable with the limits on direct payments in the Senate bill, Biden answered, “Yes.”
Under the Senate bill, single people with as much as $75,000 in income would still get the full $1,400 check, and couples up to $150,000, but the checks would phase out much faster than in the House version. They fully phase out at $80,000 and $160,000 respectively, instead of $100,000 and $200,000 in the House bill.
The $400-a-week supplemental unemployment benefit is a key target for Republicans, as well as some Democrats such as Manchin and Shaheen, who argue it makes it harder for employers to lure unemployed workers back to the job. That may get trimmed to $300 in the amendment process.
The Senate bill stripped one prize from progressives: the House-passed provision phasing in a $15-an-hour minimum wage, more than double the $7.25 of today. The Senate parliamentarian ruled last week that the provision violates fast-track budget rules allowing the bill to pass with a simple majority, and efforts to overturn or bypass that ruling failed. Also excised were some smaller provisions, like money for a tunnel in California, that Republicans had lampooned as unrelated to the pandemic.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders said he plans to force an amendment vote on a $15 minimum wage to put lawmakers on record. Democrats are also considering other ways to try and raise wages later in the year, including on a second reconciliation package.
Under budget rules, however, amendments like that require 60 votes.
Republicans, meanwhile, have for weeks complained the package spends too much, risking inflation, and isn’t targeted closely enough regarding health care costs related to Covid-19 or on people and businesses that are suffering the most.
“It is a wildly out of proportion response to where the country is at the moment. The vaccines are going out, the economies are opening up,” McConnell said. “We think having a debt the size of our economy for the first time since World War II already doesn’t argue for adding $2 trillion more when the country is clearly on the way back.”
Under special budget rules, Republicans can offer virtually unlimited amendments many of which will be designed to put Democrats on the spot politically.
Rick Scott of Florida, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he’s readying a slew of amendments.
“It’s going to be a long night,” he said.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.