Sen. Patrick Leahy, the president pro tempore of the Senate, presides during debate on the Senate COVID-19 relief bill.THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
THE SENATE PASSED Democrats' $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill on Saturday afternoon, bringing the historic rescue package backed by President Joe Biden one step closer to becoming law about a week before federal unemployment benefits are set to run out.
The strictly party-line vote came after senators pulled an all-nighter to work through multiple amendments, a session known as a vote-a-rama, after a 12-hour delay on Friday by Democrats to get Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to support their deal on unemployment insurance.
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At the conclusion of the marathon session more than 24 hours later, the Senate moved to final passage in a 50-49 vote with no Republicans backing the legislation, which will be sent back to the House this week to vote on Senate changes before it can make its way to Biden's desk.
Democrats are racing to get the rescue package, one of the largest in U.S. history, signed into law before the expiration of federal unemployment benefits by March 14. And it comes at the one-year mark of the pandemic hitting the U.S. as the country ramps up vaccinations to battle a virus that has infected nearly 29 million Americans and killed more than 522,000 people.
"When Democrats assumed the majority in this chamber, we promised to pass legislation to rescue our people from the depths of the pandemic and bring our economy and our country roaring back," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Saturday. "The American Rescue Plan will go down as one of the most sweeping federal recovery efforts in history. It's never easy to pass legislation as momentous as this, but it will all and soon be worth it."
The bill includes $1,400 stimulus checks, enhanced federal unemployment benefits of $300 a week and billions in funding to reopen schools, help small businesses and expand testing and vaccine operations. The bill includes one of Democrats' biggest priorities that got stripped from relief bills passed last year: $350 billion in state, local and tribal aid.
But the legislation looks quite different than when it passed the House mostly along party lines last week. The biggest change is the elimination of the minimum wage hike to $15 an hour after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that its inclusion in coronavirus relief ran afoul of budget rules.
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The Senate also limited the eligibility for stimulus checks by more quickly phasing out who can qualify. Individuals earning less than $75,000 a year will still receive $1,400 payments, but the income cap was lowered to $80,000. And while couples making under $150,000 will get $2,800 checks, the cutoff for joint filers will now be at $160,000.
And when it comes to the enhanced federal benefits, unemployed Americans will get $300 a week – on top of their state benefits – through Sept. 6 with the first $10,200 non-taxable for households who earn less than $150,000. The House version gave $400 weekly benefits that instead ended in August.
Senate passage of the coronavirus bill was the first major test for Democrats' narrow majority in a 50-50 Senate and whether they could keep their party unified to deliver Biden his first legislative victory.
They ultimately used budget reconciliation to fast-track the process and bypass the legislative filibuster that requires 60 votes to
The process looked much different than the ones used last year to pass previous relief bills. Congress approved more than $4 trillion in virus relief last year, and all of it was negotiated and advanced with overwhelmingly bipartisan support.
Republicans bemoaned the go-it-alone strategy but Democrats argued Americans needed a "big and bold" bill to address the virus and to do so before those who are unemployed lost critical benefits. Democrats sought to counter the narrative about a one-party bill by noting that the legislation has broad support among Amerians regardless of political affiliation.
GOP senators wanted much more targeted relief with a lower price tag than the $1.9 trillion, while others questioned the need for another bill with an economy slowly on the mend amid vaccine rollout.
"What this proves is there are benefits to bipartisanship when you're dealing with an issue of this magnitude," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Friday after the 12-hour delay to get Manchin's vote on unemployment insurance. "Exactly one year ago, instead of partisan scrambling, we were humming with bipartisan work, working on it together."
The grueling, behind-the-scenes work to get Manchin on board demonstrated in real-time the leverage and influence of one defecting member in a 50-50 Senate.
Both parties had competing amendments on unemployment: Democratic Sen. John Carper of Delaware's measure scaled back federal benefits to $300 a week but extended it through early September. GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio's amendment offered similar benefits but cut those off in July.
When Manchin signaled support for Portman's, Schumer held the vote open on the first amendment of the vote-a-rama for hours so Democrats could lobby the West Virginia senator, including with a call from Biden. By the time they reached a compromise, the vote on a $15-an-hour wage increase became the longest in recent Senate history at nearly 12 hours.
Manchin ultimately voted for Portman's amendment on unemployment insurance but also backed Carper's, which essentially canceled out the GOP measure.
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