March 6, 2021 7:53:32 pm
The Senate worked through the night and past sunrise Saturday on Democrats’ showpiece USD 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill after a deal between leaders and moderate Sen. Joe Manchin on emergency jobless benefits broke a logjam that had stalled the package.
The compromise, announced by Manchin, D-W.Va., and a Democratic aide late Friday and backed by President Joe Biden, cleared the way for the Senate to begin a marathon series of votes on amendments before eventual approval of the sweeping legislation.
The bill then would return to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval and send it to Biden to sign.
Biden’s foremost legislative priority is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the economy back to health.
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It would provide direct payments of up to USD 1,400 to most Americans and money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry and subsidies for health insurance.
Shortly before midnight, the Senate began to take up a variety of amendments in rapid-fire fashion. The votes were mostly on Republican proposals virtually certain to fail but designed to force Democrats into politically awkward votes.
It was unclear how long into the weekend the vote-a-rama would last.
By daybreak Saturday, senators had worked through about a dozen amendments, including one from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to swap in Republican centrists’ USD 650 billion alternative proposal, which Biden panned as inadequate.
That and other amendments failed, including one from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., on the Keystone XL pipeline.
One proposal that did pass, from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., would require schools, within 30 days of receiving money from the bill, to develop publicly available plans for in-person instruction.
It appeared designed to fend off Republican criticisms that Biden’s package does not do enough to swiftly reopen schools.
Friday’s lengthy standoff underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years and the tensions between progressives and centrists as they try moving their agenda through the Congress with their slender majorities.
Manchin is probably the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, and a kingmaker in the 50-50 Senate.
But Democrats cannot tilt too far center to win Manchin’s vote without endangering progressive support in the House, where they have a mere 10-vote edge.
Aiding unemployed Americans is a Democratic priority. But it’s also an issue that drives a wedge between progressives seeking to help jobless constituents cope with the bleak economy and Manchin and other moderates who have wanted to trim some of the bill’s costs.
Biden noted Friday’s jobs report showing that employers added 379,000 workers an unexpectedly strong showing. That’s still small compared with the 10 million fewer jobs since the pandemic struck a year ago.
“Without a rescue plan, these gains are going too slow. We can’t afford one step forward and two steps backwards. We need to beat the virus, provide essential relief, and build an inclusive recovery,” Biden said.
The overall bill faced a solid wall of GOP opposition, and Republicans used the unemployment impasse to accuse Biden of refusing to seek compromise with them.
You could pick up the phone and end this right now, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Biden.
But in an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70 per cent of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44 per cent of Republicans.
The House approved a relief bill last weekend that included USD 400 weekly jobless benefits on top of regular state payments through August. Manchin was hoping to reduce those costs, asserting that level of payment would discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many economists reject.
As the day began, Democrats asserted they’d reached a compromise between party moderates and progressives extending emergency jobless benefits at USD 300 weekly into early October.
That plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., also included tax reductions on some unemployment benefits. Without that, many Americans abruptly tossed out of jobs would face unexpected tax bills.
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