- The Senate kicked off a “vote-a-rama” on Friday with a vote on a $15 minimum wage.
- But proceedings ground to a halt over a last-minute clash on unemployment aid.
- Senate Majority Leader Schumer said Democrats would approve the stimulus bill sometime this weekend.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
The Senate kicked off a “vote-a-rama” on Friday with a vote on a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but the proceedings stalled out because of a late clash over unemployment benefits in the Democratic relief package. It highlighted the delicate shape of the Democratic majority.
Senate Democrats struck a deal on a last-minute change to the relief bill, cutting the federal unemployment benefit to $300 a week instead of $400. It would last through September, and not August 29 as in the House version of the legislation. It would also waive tax payments on the first $10,200 in jobless aid. The White House endorsed the plan.
But Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia appeared reluctant to back the new plan, according to a person familiar with internal discussions. He objected to the duration and size of the benefit.
Instead, he considered voting for a dueling amendment from Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. That proposal would extend a $300 weekly benefit through July 18. It would not include any tax relief for the unemployed, some of whom could get a surprise tax bill later this year.
His resistance brought proceedings to a halt for nearly 11 hours on Friday. Manchin and Senate Democrats eventually brokered a second deal on unemployment aid. The new proposal would provide a $300 weekly federal benefit until September 6 and forgive the first $10,200 in unemployment payments for people making up to $150,000.
Republicans were quick to assail Democrats for the misstep. They strongly oppose the coronavirus relief package, blasting it as too large and partisan.
“There is some bipartisanship, we believe, to change the bill,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said at a press conference. “But apparently that’s an unpardonable sin on the other side.”
The delay underscored the fragile state of the Democratic majority in an evenly divided Senate. Its one-vote edge over Republicans in the chamber — with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker — means any Democratic legislative effort could be derailed without every Senate Democrat on board.
“In a 50-50 Senate, every vote is precious. Every vote matters,” Zach Moller, the deputy director of economic policy at Third Way, a centrist think tank, told Insider. “If Democrats want to control the bill, they need to have unanimity in their party.”
“I think this is the indication of how we’re gonna see the Senate operate for the next two years,” Jim Manley, a former Democratic senior aide, told Insider. “The irony of all this is this bill was going to be the easy one and everything to come is going to be a hell of a lot tougher.”
Democrats are employing a tactic known as reconciliation to approve the relief bill with a simple majority of 51 votes, circumventing Republicans in the process. But the legislation must comply with strict budgetary rules or parts of it could be tossed out.
Any major changes to the bill could prompt a revolt among progressives in the House who have expressed criticism after a provision for a $15-an-hour minimum wage was tossed out in the Senate. Democrats have rushed to approve the bill before March 14, the date that enhanced unemployment insurance starts expiring.
“If it gets to a certain level, it may require renegotiating with the House and the White House,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland told reporters. He said it was “not a desirable” outcome and that “the clock is ticking.”
A lengthy process likely to conclude over the weekend
The “vote-a-rama” is a lengthy process in which some Democrats and Republicans offer amendments to modify the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. Democrats finalized changes to the legislation in recent days, including tightening eligibility for a third stimulus check and adjusting aid formulas for state and local aid.
The possible changes to unemployment aid within the legislation prompted concern from experts that summer would be too soon for the federal government to pull the plug on benefit programs.
“People are still going to be long-term unemployed over summer,” Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation, told Insider. “People wouldn’t have enough money to get by when then aren’t ample job opportunities out there.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the procedure may stretch on for many hours. But Democrats were intent to approve the bill sometime over the weekend.
“The Senate is going to take a lot of votes. But we are going to power through and finish this bill, however long it takes,” he said earlier on Friday. “The American people are counting on us, and our nation depends on it.”
Senate Democrats opened the proceedings at 11a.m. with an amendment to restore a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the bill. The plan was defeated in a 58-42 vote. All 50 Republican senators voted against it, as did seven Democrats and an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
The non-Republican senators in opposition were Jon Tester of Montana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Chris Coons of Delaware, Tom Carper of Delaware, Angus King of Maine, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Maggie Hassan of Maine.
The Senate parliamentarian struck that part of the relief legislation, ruling it as out of bounds with Senate guidelines last month. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said Friday he believed the official was “dead wrong” in the move.
“It is an absurd process that we allow an unelected staffer … to make a decision as to whether 30 million Americans get a pay raise or not,” Sanders said during a floor speech.
Republicans in the Senate are staunchly opposed to the $15-an-hour minimum wage. They say raising wages during a downturn would cost many jobs and worsen unemployment.