The House, which approved its own budget bill on Wednesday, is expected to act on on the Senate’s version within a day.
With the budget resolution nearly complete, Congress can turn in earnest to writing Biden’s expansive pandemic relief proposal into law — and push it through the Senate, without Republican votes if necessary, under the special rules unlocked by the budget legislation. That process will take weeks, with Democrats eyeing mid-March as the deadline for final passage of the relief legislation because that is when enhanced unemployment benefits will expire if Congress doesn’t act first.
“With the passage of this resolution we have the opportunity not only to address the pandemic, to address the economic collapse, to address the reality that millions of kids have seen their education disrupted,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “We have the opportunity to give hope to the American people and restore faith in our government to fight for them.”
Despite Biden’s campaign promises of unity and bipartisanship, now that Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House they appeared ready to leave Republicans behind. Republican senators accused Democrats of hypocrisy and argued that, after already devoting $4 trillion to fighting the pandemic, including $900 billion in December, there was no need to spend another $2 trillion on what they termed a wish-list of liberal priorities.
“This is not the time for trillions more dollars to make perpetual lockdowns and economic decline a little more palatable,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Notwithstanding the actual needs, notwithstanding all the talk about bipartisan unity, Democrats in Congress are plowing ahead. They’re using this phony budget to set the table to ram through their $1.9 trillion rough draft.”
Under the Senate’s arcane rules, debate on the budget resolution in the Senate triggered a freewheeling amendment process known as a “vote-a-rama” that began Thursday afternoon and lasted for the next 15 hours, with some 45 amendments considered on a wide array of topics.
Republicans used the opportunity to force Democrats to vote on politically tricky issues, some with little connection to the coronavirus. Even those amendments that were adopted would not have had the force of law — but they could show up in future political ads.
One of the first amendments offered, by Blunt, sought to block funding for schools that have not reopened for in-person learning once teachers had been vaccinated. It failed on a party-line vote. An amendment by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) aimed at ensuring state and local jurisdictions cooperate with federal law enforcement authorities also failed along party lines. Democrats blocked an amendment by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) aimed at opposing packing the Supreme Court, and one from Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) that sought to block stimulus checks from going to inmates.
Two Democrats — Manchin and Jon Tester — joined with Republicans to approve an amendment by Daines aimed at overturning Biden’s move to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
There was greater bipartisanship on display on other votes, notably the 99-to-1 approval of the amendment by Manchin and Collins to ensure than high-income taxpayers do not get stimulus payments.
The Senate voted unanimously in favor of an amendment by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) aimed at providing tax relief to mobile health-care workers, and an amendment by Barrasso to compensate schools losing tax revenue due to Biden’s moratorium on oil and gas development on federal lands passed 98 to 2.
Young offered an amendment he said was aimed at ensuring that undocumented immigrants do not receive stimulus checks. It passed 58 to 42, with eight Democrats voting in favor.
Hours later, Ernst sought to advance an amendment saying the federal minimum wage shouldn’t be raised during a pandemic. To her apparent surprise, Sanders agreed with her, saying that his plan to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — which Biden has included in his relief proposal — phases in over five years and doesn’t occur immediately. The Senate then adopted Ernst’s amendment on a unanimous voice vote.
The Senate passage of the budget resolution moves the “budget reconciliation” process along, allowing Biden’s relief bill to pass the Senate with a simple-majority vote, instead of the 60 normally required. That allows Democrats to move forward with no GOP votes if necessary, although Democrats and Biden officials insist that they hope Republicans will join them.
Biden’s efforts to craft a bipartisan deal have been minimal, however. He met Monday evening with 10 Senate Republicans after they offered a $618 billion counterproposal, but the White House never indicated willingness to move off Biden’s $1.9 trillion top-line or seriously consider a bipartisan compromise.
The group of 10 GOP senators, led by Collins, released a letter to Biden on Thursday thanking him for the meeting and praising some of his goals, but also raising “significant questions … about the size and scope of what is proposed” in light of the large sums already appropriated by Congress and tens of billions of dollars that remain unspent.
The few elements of Biden’s proposal that Democrats are looking at scaling back — including who would qualify for a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks — appear designed more to keep their own party unified than to attract Republican votes.
Republicans used the budget reconciliation process to pass their huge tax cut bill at the start of the Trump administration. The process has limitations, as certain provisions that don’t have an impact on the federal budget can be struck from the legislation. Some lawmakers and outside experts say Biden’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour could be at risk, for example.
In addition to raising the minimum wage and sending out a new round of stimulus checks, Biden’s proposal would increase the child tax credit, extend enhanced unemployment benefits through September, provide rental assistance and money for nutrition programs, send $130 billion to schools to help them reopen, and allocate $160 billion to address the pandemic, including vaccine roll-out, increased testing and other spending in the health-care sector.
The debate comes against a backdrop of continued high unemployment and a slower-than-desired vaccine rollout even as new variants of the coronavirus are discovered.
Signs of disunity were already emerging among Democrats. Members of the moderate-leaning Blue Dog Coalition caucus in the House released a letter Thursday to congressional Democratic leaders calling on them to move a stand-alone bill funding vaccine production and distribution before turning to the broader relief package. Biden has rejected the notion of breaking apart his relief package.
Rachel Siegel and Yeganeh Torbati contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story said that Sens. Manchin and Sen. Tester voted in favor of the keystone pipeline and then they later opposed it. Sens. Manchin and Tester voted in favor of a budget resolution that had stripped the Keystone pipeline measure from it, among other amendments, so it could move forward.