Senate Passes $1.9 Trillion COVID-19 Relief Bill
The Senate has passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, with $1,400 direct payments to many Americans, a $300 weekly unemployment benefit until September and hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments, reopening schools and a national vaccination program.
The bill passed 50-49, along party lines. Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska was absent. The House will now have to take up the Senate’s version of the bill before it is delivered to President Joe Biden’s desk.
The bill amounts to the biggest increase in federal assistance for working families in generations.
Senators worked through the night to get through a deluge of amendments from Republicans, who made it clear they had only one intention: to delay the passage of the relief package.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) forced the Senate’s clerk to read every single page of the 628-page bill aloud Thursday, a process that took more than 10 hours, and Republicans proposed changes they knew would not pass: like restricting abortion access, defunding sanctuary cities and stripping out funding for states.
But the biggest delay ended up being at the hands of one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who on Friday morning threatened to vote for a Republican amendment that would have stripped out and changed Democrats’ proposed unemployment benefits.
On Friday, Democrats had unveiled a compromise on unemployment benefits they thought Manchin had agreed to: $300 per week, instead of the originally proposed $400 weekly benefit, through Oct. 4, paired with tax forgiveness on unemployment income.
But by noon it became clear that Manchin wanted to vote for an amendment proposed by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would extend $300 weekly benefits only to July 18, with no tax forgiveness.
With a 50-50 split in the Senate, it only takes one Democrat to join the Republicans to pass an amendment.
Democrats spent more than 10 hours negotiating with Manchin to sign on to a Democratic compromise. Joe Biden spoke with Manchin on the phone. Tensions were high, as was a sense of confusion among Democratic and Republican senators who didn’t understand Manchin’s endgame.
Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, echoed Republican concerns that Democrats’ proposal would disincentivize work, a concern he had aired with reporters earlier in the week, saying he thought it would be fine if aid to jobless Americans ended in the summer.
In the end, Manchin did vote for Portman’s amendment, allowing it to pass, but also subsequently voted for a competing Democratic amendment on unemployment benefits that undid Portman’s proposal. The final compromise includes $300 per week in benefits through the beginning of September and, to sweeten the deal for progressive lawmakers, also offers tax forgiveness for up to $10,200 in unemployment income for households that make less than $150,000.
Poverty researchers said the smaller benefit is unlikely to significantly change the impact on struggling households; both would significantly reduce poverty in the United States. That said, the earlier September cutoff would increase poverty projections, Columbia University researcher Zach Parolin tweeted.
The final bill looks very similar to Biden’s initial plan, which he proposed the week before his inauguration, with some tweaks to win over more moderate members of the Senate. Manchin and other more centrist senators also demanded limits on how many Americans would receive the stimulus checks.
The full $1,400 checks will only go to those making $75,000 or less (or $150,000 for joint filers) and be cut off for individuals who make more than $80,000 (or $160,000 for joint filers), cutting out 12 million adults and 5 million children, according to early estimates from the liberal-leaning think tank Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
Democrats did adopt some other amendments, including a few from Republicans, including a bipartisan proposal from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Manchin to direct $800 million toward alleviating youth homelessness and another from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) on veterans’ education, both of which passed by voice votes. They also adopted a proposal from Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) that will require schools receiving relief funds to develop publicly available plans for returning to in-person learning.
Republicans still voted against the final bill.
A proposal from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that made all student loan forgiveness tax free was also included in the final bill, an amendment Warren said will help clear the path for Biden to cancel student debt.
Among other major provisions in the bill are hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments, money for schools to reopen, rental assistance and additional money for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.
The bill also expands the child tax credit, from $2,000 to a maximum of $3,600 per child for 2021, distributing the money as advance cash payments, essentially creating a temporary child allowance. The change would dramatically reduce child poverty, and Biden has already expressed interest in making the policy more permanent.
Democrats are on a tight timeline, aiming to get the bill to Biden’s desk before March 14 when unemployment benefits begin to expire. There are signs the economy is already beginning to improve. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report showed some promising signs, but the numbers showed labor participation still stagnant.
The American public is strongly in favor of the relief package, which 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, with 76% of Americans in favor of the proposal, including 60% of Republicans.
All that’s left is for House Democrats to get in line behind the proposal. Last week, there was some muttering that a few progressive lawmakers would vote against the final bill because it excluded an increase to the minimum wage, which senators decided ran afoul of budgetary rules. With only a five-seat majority in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) cannot afford many defections.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.
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