Senate resumes work on virus bill after jobless benefit deal

Friday, March 5, 2021 | Alan Fram, Associated Press


Congressional staffers wait in the ornate corridor outside the Senate chamber during a delay in work on the Democrats' $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, March 5, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate leaders and moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin struck a deal late Friday over emergency jobless benefits, breaking a nine-hour logjam that had stalled the party's showpiece $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide, seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes expected to lead to approval of the sweeping legislation.

The overall bill, President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health. It would provide direct payments of up to $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.

While the Senate next faced votes on a pile of amendments that were likely to go overnight, Democratic leaders' agreement with Manchin suggested it was just a matter of time until the chamber passes the bill. That would ship it back to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval and whisk it to Biden for his signature.

But the day's lengthy standoff also underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years as they try moving their agenda through Congress with their slender majorities.

Manchin is probably the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, and a kingmaker in a 50-50 Senate that leaves his party without a vote to spare. With Democrats’ slim majorities — they have a mere 10-vote House edge — the party needs his vote but can’t tilt too far center without losing progressive support.

With 10 million fewer jobs since the pandemic struck a year ago, aiding unemployed Americans is a top Democratic priority. But it’s also an issue that drove a divide 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.

“People in the country are hurting right now, with less than two weeks from enhanced unemployment checks being cut,” Biden said at the White House, referring to the March 14 end to the current round of emergency jobless benefits. He called his bill a “clearly necessary lifeline for getting the upper hand” against the pandemic.

The package faces 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.

The House version of the relief bill provided $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.

As the day began, Democrats asserted they'd reached a compromise between party moderates and progressives extending emergency jobless benefits at $300 weekly into early October. That plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., also included tax reductions on some unemployment benefits.

But by midday, lawmakers said Manchin was ready to support a less generous Republican version. That led to hours of talks involving White House aides, top Senate Democrats and Manchin as the party tried finding a way to salvage its unemployment aid package.

The compromise announced Friday night would provide $300 weekly, with the final check paid on Sept. 6, and includes the tax break on those benefits.

Before the unemployment benefits drama began, senators voted 58-42 to kill a top progressive priority, a gradual increase in the current $7.25 hourly minimum wage to $15 over five years.

Eight Democrats voted against the proposal, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other progressives vowing to continue the effort in coming months will face a difficult fight.

But eight hours after that minimum wage roll call began, it still hadn’t been formally gaveled to a close as all Senate work ceased while Democrats struggled to resolve their unemployment benefits problem.

The next step would be a mountain of amendments, mostly by GOP opponents, virtually all destined to fail but designed to force Democrats to take politically awkward votes.

Republicans say the overall bill is a liberal spend-fest that ignores that growing numbers of vaccinations and signs of a stirring economy suggest that the twin crises are easing.

“Our country is already set for a roaring recovery," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in part citing an unexpectedly strong report on job creation. “Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.”

Democrats reject that, citing the 10 million jobs the economy has lost during the pandemic and numerous people still struggling to buy food and pay rent.

“If you just look at a big number you say, ‘Oh, everything's getting a little better,'" said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It's not for the lower half of America. It's not."

In an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70% of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44% of Republicans.

Friday's gridlock over unemployment benefits gridlock wasn't the first delay. On Thursday Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., forced the chamber's clerks to read aloud the entire 628-page relief bill, an exhausting task that took staffers 10 hours and 44 minutes and ended shortly after 2 a.m. EST.

Democrats made a host of other late changes to the bill, designed to nail down support. They ranged from extra money for food programs and federal subsidies for health care for workers who lose jobs to funds for rural health care and language assuring minimum amounts of money for smaller states.

In another late bargain that satisfied moderates, Biden and Senate Democrats agreed Wednesday to make some higher earners ineligible for the direct checks to individuals.

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