By Richard Cowan, Makini Brice and David Morgan
The Senate on Saturday passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan in a party-line vote after an all-night session that saw Democrats battling among themselves over jobless aid and the Republican minority failing to push through some three dozen amendments.
The final bill includes $400 billion in one-time payments of $1,400 to most Americans, $300 a week in extended jobless benefits for the 9.5 million people thrown out of work in the crisis, and $350 billion in aid to state and local governments that have seen the pandemic blow a hole in their budgets.
The Senate voted 50-49, with no Republicans supporting what would be one of the largest stimulus packages in U.S. history.
Democrats broke out in applause amid passage of the bill and Senator Bernie Sanders fist-bumped Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
As the Senate was about to cast its vote, Schumer said the bill was the prescription for getting the upper hand against a pandemic that has killed more than 520,000 people across the country and upended most aspects of American life.
“I want the American people to know that we’re going to get through this and someday soon our businesses will reopen, our economy will reopen and life will reopen,” Schumer said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, however, had harsh words about the measure. “The Senate has never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard way or through a less rigorous process,” he said.
Republicans had sought a new round of aid about one-third the size of Biden’s plan.
McConnell argued that even without this legislation, “2021 is already set to be our comeback year” because of relief bills enacted last year.
The fight is not over as the bill needs to return to the House of Representatives, which approved a slightly different version a week earlier. The House is expected to give its final approval next week, and Schumer said the House passage is expected in time for Biden to sign the bill before enhanced unemployment benefits expire on March 14.
The measure comes as an increasing number of states have been relaxing restrictions designed to curb the pandemic, with Texas earlier this week announcing it would allow most businesses to operate at full capacity and California saying it would soon allow Disneyland and other theme parks as well as sports stadiums to reopen at limited capacity. But even as more and more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19, top infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that “now is not the time to pull back.”
The standoff within the Democratic party over the jobless benefits and the all-night effort by Republicans to amend a bill that polls show is popular with voters illustrated the difficulty Biden will face in pushing other policies through a Senate that Democrats control by the narrowest of majorities.
The chamber set a record in its longest single vote in the modern era — 11 hours and 50 minutes — as Democrats negotiated a compromise on unemployment benefits to satisfy centrists like Senator Joe Manchin, who often walks a delicate tightrope as a Democrat representing a state, West Virginia, that overwhelmingly supported Republican former President Donald Trump in the November election.
The extended unemployment payments, which are to be paid out on top of state jobless benefits, proved to be the most contentious part of the bill. The House bill had set the supplemental benefit at $400 a week, but Senate Democrats finally agreed to knock that down to $300.
The House bill also featured a measure to more than double the minimum wage to $15 per hour, which the Senate also rejected.
Moderate Democrats feared that the higher jobless benefits and minimum wage hike would overheat the economy and hurt businesses in rural states.
Senate Democrats used a process called reconciliation to pass the measure with a simple majority rather than the 60 of 100 votes normally required under the chamber’s rules.
It was unclear whether Democrats will try to use that maneuver on other policy goals such as legislation dealing with climate change and immigration.
One Republican, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, left Washington on Friday night for a family funeral, meaning that Democrats did not need Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote in the normally 50-50 chamber.
Republicans broadly supported previous stimulus packages to fight the virus and revive the economy. But with Democrats in charge of the White House and both chambers of Congress, they criticized this bill as too expensive.
The country has yet to replace 9.5 million jobs lost since last year and the White House says it could take years to do so.
Washington got unexpected good news on Friday after data showed that U.S. employment surged in February, adding 379,000 jobs, significantly higher than many economists had expected.