Senate approves price range decision as Democrats rush to go Covid reduction invoice

The Senate passed a budget resolution early Friday, moving toward passing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill after a marathon of votes on dozens of amendments.

Democrats passed it 51-50 in the evenly split Senate, as Vice President Kamala Harris had to cast her first tiebreaking vote. The party line vote after about 15 hours of considering politically thorny amendments underscores the divide in Congress on how to structure the next aid package.

Vice President Kamala Harris participates in a ceremonial swearing-in photo op with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. February 4, 2021.

Greg Nash | Reuters

The House approved a budget measure on Wednesday. The chamber will have to vote again because the Senate passed a separate version.

“I am so thankful that our caucus stayed together in unity,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said after the vote. “We had no choice given the problems facing America and the desire to move forward. And we have moved forward.”

He contended “this was a bipartisan activity” because the chamber adopted several amendments written by senators from both parties.

U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Approval of a resolution will allow Democrats to forge ahead with the budget reconciliation process, which enables the party to pass a rescue package with no Republican votes. While President Joe Biden has said he hopes to win Republican support for the aid plan, Democrats have started to set up the framework to pass the proposal as soon as possible without GOP support.

Without using reconciliation, Democrats would have to win 10 Republicans over in a Senate split 50-50.

The budget resolution directs committees to write legislation reflecting Biden’s Covid relief package, while staying under the $1.9 trillion target. Democrats aim to pass, among other provisions:

  • $1,400 direct payments
  • A $400 per week jobless benefit through September
  • $350 billion in state, local and tribal government relief
  • A $20 billion national Covid vaccination program
  • $50 billion for virus testing
  • $170 billion for K-12 schools and higher education institutions
  • A $30 billion rent and utility assistance fund

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic committee chair who will draft the legislation met with Biden on Friday morning. In a message to colleagues Friday, the California Democrat wrote that her party hopes to “finish our work before the end of February.”

Multiple amendments passed during the string of votes, though many were vague, and it was not clear how they would affect final legislation. They included a measure to prevent high-income people from getting stimulus checks, one to set up a grant program for restaurants and one to bar tax increases on small businesses during the pandemic.

An additional amendment that passed aims to prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving direct payments.

A separate measure that failed — which targeted New York without naming it — would have limited funding to states under scrutiny for underreporting coronavirus deaths in nursing homes.

Democrats have contended they cannot afford to wait to pass a bill if talks with Republicans on a bipartisan plan do not yield a breakthrough. They have said nearly $2 trillion in spending is necessary to both rein in the pandemic and prevent future economic pain.

Republicans offered Biden a $618 billion counter proposal, arguing that Congress can limit additional spending after it passed a $900 billion aid bill in December. A group of GOP lawmakers who met with Biden on Monday sent him a letter Thursday, questioning the amount of school funding in his plan and praising him for considering lowering the income cap for stimulus checks.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers have urged the White House to break its plan into smaller pieces to ensure bipartisan support for parts of it. The House Problem Solvers Caucus, which counts 56 members from both parties, urged a swift vote Friday on a $160 billion bill built around vaccine distribution funds.

The Biden administration has said it will not split the relief legislation.

Democrats hope to pass a relief package before March 14, when a $300 per week unemployment supplement approved in December expires.

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