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Senate takes step toward passing $1.9 trillion relief bill

The Senate took its first major step Thursday toward passing Democrats’ $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package as lawmakers try to beat a deadline to prevent unemployment aid from expiring.

The chamber voted to start debate on the rescue package, setting the stage for its approval as soon as this weekend. Vice President Kamala Harris had to break a 50-50 tie after a party-line vote in the evenly divided Senate.

A tricky process awaits, as Senate Republicans who oppose more stimulus spending have tools at their disposal to delay a final vote on the 628-page bill by hours or even days.

  • The procedural vote starts up to 20 hours of debate on the plan. Senators may not use all of that time.
  • Debate will not immediately begin. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin forced Senate clerks to read the massive legislation out loud, which will take at least several hours. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the move would “merely delay the inevitable.”
  • After the discussion period ends, the Senate will hold votes on an indefinite number of amendments to the bill as part of the budget reconciliation process that enables legislation to pass with a simple majority. Republicans are expected to use amendments to force Democrats into politically thorny votes and drag out the process.

“No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week,” Schumer said on Thursday.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., participates in a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Senate Rules and Administration committees joint hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, February 23, 2021, to examine the January 6th attack on the Capitol.

Erin Scott | Pool | Reuters

After Senate passage of the plan, the House plans to approve it by the middle of next week. Democrats aim to get the legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk before March 14, when a $300 per week unemployment insurance boost and programs extending benefits to millions more people formally expire.

Democrats could pass the bill on their own in the Senate, with Harris breaking a tie.

Republicans have criticized the scope of the spending as Covid-19 vaccinations ramp up and the country gets closer to reopening in the coming months.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday that his problem with the plan is “how ill-suited this bill is to what Americans need right now.”

Democrats have said the proposal will both boost Americans struggling to afford housing and food after nearly a year of economic restrictions and prevent future economic pain as the country starts to resume normal activities. The party, which has to keep every member on board to get the bill through the Senate, discussed a range of last-minute changes to assuage concerns.

Democrats’ plan puts a $400 per week unemployment supplement in place through Aug. 29 and extends programs making more people eligible for jobless benefits through the same date. Some Democratic senators had pushed to either keep the benefits in place for a longer period of time or reduce the additional payment amount to $300 a week.

To win the support of moderate Democrats, party leaders also agreed to limit the number of people who will get direct payments of up to $1,400. New income caps could mean at least 8 million fewer people would get checks than under the bill passed by the House on Saturday.

The Senate also removed a House-passed provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. The chamber’s parliamentarian ruled lawmakers could not do so under budget reconciliation.

Other changes to the House bill include an expansion of the employee retention tax credit, a boost to COBRA health-insurance subsidies, and more funding for critical infrastructure and rural health care, according to NBC News.

Democrats considered a change to make sure more of the pool of $350 billion in state, local and tribal government aid went to small states.

The legislation also puts $20 billion into Covid-19 vaccine distribution, expands the child tax credit for one year and includes billions of dollars more in rent and utility assistance.

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2021-03-04 19:07:42

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