The Senate on Thursday afternoon began what promises to be a lengthy debate over a modified version of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) pledging to pass the bill this week even as Republicans maneuver to drag out the process, likely extending it into the weekend.
"No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week," Schumer said. "We all know this will merely delay the inevitable. It will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks who work very hard, day in, day out, to help the Senate function."
The debate began after the Senate cleared a procedural vote, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a 50-50 tie along partisan lines.
What’s next: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) forced Senate clerks to read the entire 628-page bill out loud, a step that is usually waived by bipartisan agreement. The reading started shortly after 3 p.m. ET and is expected to take about 10 hours or more, meaning it could extend well past midnight.
“We all know this will merely delay the inevitable. It will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks who work very hard,” Schumer said. And The Washington Post’s Philip Bump calculated that nearly 1,400 Americans will die from Covid while the text is being read.
After the reading, the Senate will begin up to 20 hours of debate on the bill, to be followed by a “vote-a-rama” in which lawmakers can offer up an unlimited number of amendments. That process could potentially require votes on dozens of amendments, dragging out for hours and hours. The key question for the vote-a-rama will be whether any of the amendments will get enough support to be adopted — and whether those changes alter the outlook for final passage through the evenly divided chamber.
Changes in the Senate package: The Senate version of the legislation differs from the House-passed bill in several important ways:
* No minimum wage hike: It doesn’t include an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the provision doesn’t comply with budget rules being used to pass the package by a simple majority vote.
* Tighter limits for relief payments: The Senate bill lowers eligibility limits for $1,400 direct payments, reducing the income level at which payments phase out completely from $100,000 to $80,000 for individuals and from $200,000 to $160,000 for couples filing jointly. The change means that some 9 million fewer households will receive a payment this time compared to the previous round.
* Revised formula for state aid: Democrats tweaked the formula for allocating some $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, boosting money sent to less populous states and diverting $10 billion toward “critical capital projects” like broadband access, CQ Roll Call reports. “There are also numerous new restrictions on the state and local money, including a requirement that only 50 percent of the funds be made available up front, along with more limited uses for the funds,” Roll Call says.
The changes reportedly were made to help ensure the support of moderate Democrats — and perhaps to court the vote of Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski in an effort to show bipartisan backing for the package.
Murkowski indicated Thursday she is still deciding how to vote on the relief bill and said she is focused on how the package could help her state, including its tourism and seafood sectors. “I’m going to see what’s in it. We already know there are some things in it that are clearly not Covid related, but I’m looking at some of the things that will provide a level of relief for a state like Alaska.” she told reporters.
* Two transportation projects cut: The Senate bill eliminates funding in the House bill for two controversial transportation projects, one in California and one in New York.
Read about other changes in the Senate version at CQ Roll Call.
The bottom line: A final vote on Senate passage likely won’t happen until the weekend. The House will then have to pass the Senate bill, but Democrats appear to be headed toward delivering Biden his first major legislative win.