- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Senate on Saturday approved a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in a party-line vote, advancing President Biden’s top legislative priority after an all-night partisan showdown over the massive spending.

The bill could land on Mr. Biden’s desk as soon as next week and allow him to send $1,400 checks to most Americans, dole out $350 billion to states and local governments and enact policy goals such as expanding Obamacare subsidies.

“It’s been a long day, a long night, a long year but a new day has come and we tell the American people help is on the way,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said before the vote.

He said that the sweeping federal recovery spending would deliver “one final push to get us over the finish line” and that America would come “roaring back.”

Democrats forced through the bill in a 50-49, with Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska absent to attend a funeral. They used a process known as budget reconciliation that precludes filibusters and enabled Democrats to pass it without Republican support.

Mr. Sullivan’s absence allowed Democrats to kill Republican amendments and pass the final package without calling on Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote.

The package made several changes to the House-passed bill, including reducing the boost to unemployment benefits from $400 per week to $300. The package now goes back to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chamber, where it is expected to pass next week and then go Mr. Biden for his signature.

The rescue package includes the stimulus checks for individuals making under $75,000 and couples making under $150,000. The bill would provide $130 billion for K-12 schools, nearly $40 billion for colleges, $15 billion for loans to small businesses, $14 billion for vaccine programs and $8.4 billion for rural hospitals.

Republicans objected to the excessive and scattershot spending. They said just 10% of the money goes to COVID-19 related issues and squanders the rescue spending on an economy that is already rebounding, pointing to Friday’s unemployment report that showed 379 thousand jobs added to the economy last month.

They also balked at the $350 billion going to states such as California that have posted budget surpluses despite predictions that the pandemic lockdowns would dramatically shrink state tax revenues.

What’s more, they said, Washington already spent $4 trillion on COVID-19 aid last year.

“The Senate has never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard way,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “We could have worked together to speed up victory but our Democratic colleagues made a decision. Their top priority wasn’t pandemic relief, it was their Washington wish list.”

Democrats insisted that the dual crises of pandemic and economic downturn justified the emergency spending. They accused Republicans of standing in the way of badly needed aid.

“This country is demanding Congress act now and stand up for the working families of this country. They are tired of obstructionism,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who led the Democrats’ effort.

The most significant changes the Senate made to the House-passed bill were to jobless benefits and the elimination of a measure to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour from $7.25. Republicans won those concessions with the help of moderate Democrats who broke ranks.

After the Senate killed the minimum wage hike in a 58-42 vote, falling eight votes short of the 60 needed to survive, Mr. Schumer held the vote open for nearly 12 hours while negotiating with Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and other moderates to get a deal on jobless benefits.

Mr. Manchin also helped kill the minimum wage increase. The other Democratic defections on the measure were Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Sen Jon Tester of Montana, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also voted no on the wage increase.

The intra-party standoff on jobless benefits threatened the entire package.

They struck a deal with Mr. Manchin late Friday that lowered the amount to $300, slightly extended the life of the benefits through Sept. 6 and made the first $10,200 of 2020 benefits nontaxable for households with an annual income of less than $150,000.

“The president has made it clear we will have enough vaccines for every American by the end of May and I am confident the economic recovery will follow,” Mr. Manchin said. “We have reached a compromise that enables the economy to rebound quickly while also protecting those receiving unemployment benefits from being hit with [an] unexpected tax bill next year.”

The deal kicked off a marathon overnight session of votes on amendments.

Democrats shot down a slew of Republican amendments to trim, more narrowly target or add conditions to the spending, such as a measure by Sen. Marco Rubio, Floria Republican, that would have required states to ensure schools open 50% of the time for 50% of students to receive COVID-19 funds.

Democrats rejected an amendment by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, that would are reworked the formula for distributing $350 billion in aid to state and local governments to avoid showering huge payouts to on California and New York.

They defeated an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, that would have stopped Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans from going to labor unions.

They also killed an amendment by Sen. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican, that would have prevented $1,400 stimulus checks from going to prison inmates.

Another failed amendment, this one offered by Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, would have stopped the state and local government money from going to so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

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