The Senate voted to begin debate on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Thursday after Democrats agreed among themselves on the final details of the bill, which includes funding for schools, vaccine distribution and jobless benefits.
The vote was 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote in favor advancing the bill.
The final package is almost identical to the proposal Biden put forward in the week prior to his inauguration in January, with a few tweaks to appease the Senate’s most moderate Democrats. If passed, it would give hundreds of billions of dollars to states and localities to fill budget holes from the pandemic, include $1,400 checks, extend unemployment benefits through August, and give food and rental assistance to struggling Americans.
The changes are significant, however, particularly when it comes to the direct payments. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and other centrist Democrats demanded the checks reach a narrower group of Americans than Biden had originally proposed, citing concerns that too many high-earners were benefiting from the financial stimulus.
In the end, the full checks would go to all Americans who made $75,000 or less ($150,000 for joint filers), but partial payments cut off abruptly at $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for joint filers. This compromise is the second time Democrats have tightened the income limits; the House bill originally had a $100,000 cutoff ($200,000 for joint filers), responding to moderate Democrats’ early gripes about the payments.
The moderates’ victory — denying checks to roughly 12 million Americans — was only part of their demands. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pushed for more aid for localities whose revenues had dried up due to the pandemic, while Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) had asked to reallocate funding for states to expand broadband access.
Manchin also wanted to keep unemployment benefits at their current $300 per week levels, instead of increasing them to $400 per week, in addition to ending the benefit in July instead of August. Democratic leaders did not concede on either of those demands, though it did mean that progressive members’ push to extend unemployment benefits even further — to the end of September — did fail to make it in.
As Democrats negotiated among themselves to finalize this relief bill, Republicans have stood resolute in their opposition, citing the legislation’s impact on the deficit. Republicans have planned to inundate Democrats in amendments in the final days before the bill receives its final vote. That process, known as a vote-a-rama, could take days.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) also wants to force clerks to read the entire 628-page bill out loud on the Senate floor, a process that senators typically skip without objection. Reading a bill numbering hundreds of pages is expected to take up to 10 hours.
“We all know this will merely delay the inevitable. It will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks,” Schumer said, promising to keep the chamber in session “no matter how long it takes.”
“If the senator from Wisconsin wants to read it, let everybody listen because it has overwhelming support,” he added.
The White House also laughed off Republicans’ delay tactics.
“So the ‘strategy’ is to further delay an overwhelmingly popular rescue plan that a majority of Republican voters support the contents of by ... reminding people of the very contents they support?” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates tweeted Thursday.
Democrats have the American public on their side. The relief package has polled very well, even among Republicans. According to a survey conducted by The Economist/YouGov in late February, 66% of Americans supported Biden’s plan. Another poll from Morning Consult found even more overwhelming support; 76% of Americans were in favor of the proposal, including 60% of Republicans.
The one Republican senator who has shown an openness to the proposal is Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, whose home state has been tremendously hard-hit during the pandemic, with more than a 40% loss in tax revenue. She voted against advancing the bill toward final passage, but has split her vote in the past.
“My state needs relief,” Murkowski told reporters on Capitol Hill earlier this week. “If Congress is going to move this much money out the door, how am I going to make sure that states like Alaska — who have been significantly impacted, who are still in need of rescue, if that’s the term that they’re using for this package — that we, in fact, get those, get access to those rescue dollars?”
The bill also includes an expansion of the child tax credit, from $2,000 to a maximum of $3,600 per child, with provisions to distribute the money in advance cash payments. Taken together, the changes essentially transform an obscure tax policy into a child allowance and would slash child poverty.
Despite their willingness to pass a bill with a trillion-dollar price tag, Democratic leaders are still operating under self-imposed cost constraints. The expanded child tax credit is only for 2021 because a single year of the policy costs about $100 billion.
During a meeting with congressional Democrats on Wednesday, Biden indicated for the first time that he believed the child tax policy should be permanent, as congressional Democrats have said it should be. There are a whole host of more permanent policies Democrats are eyeing to do in the coming months, like tying jobless benefits to unemployment levels.
The bill extends federal unemployment programs for only five months, instead of six as Biden originally proposed, meaning benefits will expire at the end of August — when Congress will be on its summer recess.
“The second this bill passes, I am going to fight like hell to get that sixth month,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told HuffPost.
But they’ll have to pass another bill to make it that way ― and they’ll either need to win over Republicans or change the rules of the Senate to do it.
Asked how Democrats would extend the temporary policies in the bill, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Budget Committee chairman, told HuffPost that they would return to the reconciliation process once again, even though it is normally used only once per fiscal year.
“This piece of legislation is the most important piece of legislation for working people that we have seen in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said. “Our job right now is to pass it and then to move on to the second reconciliation bill as soon as possible.”