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Senate vote paves way for passage of Biden’s economic relief plan

The Senate on Feb. 5, voted to approve a budget bill that paves the way for passage of President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Senate approved a budget bill early Friday that paves the way for passage of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, with Vice President Harris casting the tiebreaking vote on the measure that will be key to enacting Biden’s first major legislative initiative.

Passage of the budget bill by a 51-to-50 vote came just after 5:30 a.m. Friday, after an all-night Senate session during which senators plowed through dozens of amendments in a chaotic process known as a “vote-a-rama.” Democrats cheered on progress to address the pandemic, while Republicans complained of partisanship and excessive spending.

The House, which approved its own budget bill on Wednesday, is expected to act on on the Senate’s version within a day.

Here’s what to know:

  • The House is expected to take up and pass the Senate’s budget resolution within a day.
  • President Biden is expected to speak about the stimulus relief package on Friday morning.
  • The main budget resolution would provide for stimulus payments up to $1,400 per person, but senior Democrats have talked about narrowing who qualifies to low- and moderate-income families.
  • Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) proposed an amendment to bar funding from schools that have not reopened once teachers have been vaccinated. It failed on a party-line vote.
  • Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) offered an amendment to block stimulus payments to undocumented immigrants. It passed with eight Democrats voting in favor.
  • The Senate voted 99-to-1 to approve an amendment, led by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), to ensure that “upper-income taxpayers” do not receive stimulus payments. The measure did not define “upper income,” although Democratic lawmakers are weighing how to target the checks.
  • The Senate also passed a measure pushed by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) to compensate schools losing tax revenue due to Biden’s moratorium on oil and gas development on federal lands. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said he disagreed with Barrasso’s view on the moratorium but supports the measure to insulate schools from the impact of lost oil and gas revenue.
  • Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) advanced an amendment saying the federal minimum wage shouldn’t be raised during a pandemic. In a twist, Sanders said he agreed with her, because his plan, incorporated in Biden’s proposal, raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour over five years — not immediately. Ernst’s amendment passed by voice vote.
  • An amendment by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) to overturn Biden’s move blocking completion of the Keystone XL pipeline passed. Two Democrats — Manchin and Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.) — voted in favor of it, although they later voted in favor of proceeding on the larger package without the pipeline and other amendments included.
  • Democrats rejected GOP amendments related to packing the Supreme Court and blocking stimulus checks from going to inmates.
  • Democrats also united to defeat an amendment that would have banned a federal tax on carbon. Manchin joined the Democratic votes despite his opposition in the past to similar taxes.

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.

White House plays down prospects for Biden-GOP meeting on relief bill

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.

Kelly Evans lost her job during the pandemic, but has never received unemployment. As her family battles hunger, she hopes Washington acts quickly on relief. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

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.

Read Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue proposal

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.

correction

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.

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