Democrats are within reach of passing the sweeping legislation that would send out a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks, $350 billion to cities and states, $130 billion to schools, billions for a national vaccine program and more. Democrats are moving through dozens of amendments in a chaotic process known as a “vote-a-rama” that could continue for hours on Saturday.
The Senate approved in a 50 to 49 vote an amendment from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to reduce the unemployment benefits in the bill from September to July 18. But in line with the agreement reached between Manchin and senior Senate Democrats, the Senate later approved an overriding amendment to extend jobless benefits through Sept. 6 at $300 per week, lower than the $400 per week pushed by the White House and House Democrats.
The vote also incorporated a provision to provide tax relief on up to $10,200 in unemployment benefits for households making under $150,000, a measure Democrats pushed to prevent families from facing shocking year-end tax bills.
The unemployment provisions sparked a back-and-forth on the Senate floor between Portman and Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), with Portman citing the reopening of many sectors in states across the country to argue the benefits were unnecessary. Portman asked the Senate to support the plan it had backed only “an hour and a half ago.”
“Suddenly, if you’re on unemployment insurance you don’t have to pay taxes. But if you’re working, you do have to pay taxes. How does that work?” Portman said.
Wyden responded that the tax forgiveness only included modest relief for jobless Americans, adding of the GOP’s opposition: “The party that claims to want to help workers on their taxes won’t lift a finger.”
The White House backed the compromise measure on jobless benefits as well.
“The president supports the compromise agreement, and is grateful to all the senators who worked so hard to reach this outcome,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “It extends supplemental unemployment benefit into September, and helps the vast majority of unemployment insurance recipients avoid unanticipated tax bills. Most importantly, this agreement allows us to move forward on the urgently needed American Rescue Plan.”
The legislation would still have to go back to the House for final passage before getting sent to Biden to sign, something that’s expected to happen early next week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has guaranteed the House will pass the Senate’s version of the bill, though House liberals were voicing growing discomfort over changes pushed by Senate moderates they said watered down the bill.
The Senate took up various other amendments early Saturday morning, though none appeared likely to alter the fate of the bill. Numerous proposals pushed by Senate Republicans — including a plan by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to offer a $650 billion bill in place of Biden’s; a plan by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to tie school funding to reopening requirements; and a plan by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) demanding transparency in state nursing home investigations — were defeated narrowly by the Democratic majority.
Democrats also beat back an effort from within their own party to overturn some of the president’s environmental actions. Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) also joined with Senate Republicans pushing an amendment requiring Biden to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which was halted soon after Biden took office. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke out against the measure, citing the need to combat climate change. The proposal required 60 votes to be approved but fell short of that threshold, 51 to 48.
Despite Democrats’ ultimate success in breaking the stimulus logjam, the baffling developments threatening the bill over the last 24 hours underscored the challenges Biden faces in getting his agenda through Congress given the exceedingly narrow Democratic majorities in both chambers. After disavowing bipartisan negotiations to pass a sweeping relief bill opposed by the GOP, Biden confronted a scenario where a single balky moderate Democrat had the ability to upset his plans.
On Friday, the U.S. economy saw an encouraging jobs report showing 379,000 jobs had been added in February. The unemployment rate remained dramatically elevated above pre-coronavirus levels with more than 9 million Americans remaining jobless.