Washington • A exhausted Senate narrowly approved a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on Saturday as President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies secured a victory they said was crucial to lifting the country out of the pandemic and the economic slump.
After toiling through the night on a mountain of amendments — nearly all Republican and rejected — the bleary-eyed senators approved the sprawling package in a 50-49 vote. That sets up final Congressional approval. by the House next week so lawmakers can send it to Biden for his signature.
The huge measure — his total spending is nearly a tenth the size of the entire US economy — is Biden’s biggest initial priority. This is his formula for battling the deadly virus and a lame economy, twin crises that have plagued the country for a year.
“This nation has suffered too much for too long,” Biden told reporters at the White House after the vote. “And everything in this package is designed to alleviate suffering and meet the nation’s most pressing needs, and put us in a better position to prevail.”
Saturday’s vote was also a pivotal political moment for Biden and the Democrats, who need nothing less than party unanimity in a 50-50 Senate they lead with the deciding deputy vote. President Kamala Harris. They have a slim 10-vote advantage for the house.
Not a single Republican, including Utah senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, backed the bill in the Senate or during its initial passage through the House, underscoring the barbed partisan environment that has characterized until present the early days of Biden’s presidency.
“For more than a year now, Congress has responded to the COVID pandemic the same way the American people have: together,” Lee said in a statement Saturday.
With this bill, however, “Democrats have abandoned that approach and instead embraced a partisan bag of special interest documents in the name of fighting a disease,” Lee added.
“This bloated and unnecessary bill was not written for patients, businesses or workers suffering from COVID; it was written for the Democratic Party. It is a disgrace and a sham,” he said.
Meanwhile, Romney unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to pass his amendment, which would “ensure that aid only goes to states with demonstrated need,” according to a press release from his office.
“There was an assumption that states had massive revenue losses associated with the COVID experience, but the data that’s come out since shows that many states haven’t,” Romney told the Senate. “Twenty-one states are seeing an increase in revenue.”
That includes Utah, which Romney says “doesn’t need more money.”
“We are going to ask the American people to allow us to borrow money from China and others, to pass it on to our children and grandchildren, so that we can send money to states like California and mine that don’t need it. ,” he said. “That makes no sense at all.”
During an appearance on Fox News on Saturday, Utah Governor Spencer Cox called the bill’s passage “disappointing.”
“It’s one of those issues where we’ve really had a chance to do bipartisan work and come together,” Cox said. Instead, though, “we’re back to our addiction to partisanship and our addiction to division,” he said.
A small but core group of moderate Democrats took advantage of changes to the legislation that infuriated progressives, making it difficult for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to guide the measure through the House. But defeating their first signature bill was not an option for Democrats, who face two years of trying to steer Congress with virtually no margin for error.
“They feel like we’re doing it, we have to do it,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said of the House. He said he spoke to Pelosi about the Senate changes and added, “It’s not going to be all everyone wants. No invoice is.
The bill provides direct payments of up to $1,400 for most Americans and extended emergency unemployment benefits. There are vast expenditures for COVID-19 vaccines and tests, struggling states and cities, schools and industries, and tax breaks to help low-income people, families with children and subscribing consumers. health insurance.
The package has faced strong opposition from Republicans, who call it an unnecessary spending spree for the Democrats’ liberal allies that ignores recent indications that the pandemic and the economy could be taking a turn.
“The Senate has never spent $2 trillion more haphazardly,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Of Democrats, he said, “their top priority was not pandemic relief. It was their wish list in Washington.
The Senate began a dreaded “vote-a-thon” — an ongoing series of votes on amendments — shortly before midnight Friday, and by its end around noon, it had handed out about three dozen. The Senate had been in session since 9 a.m. EST on Friday.
Overnight, the bedroom was like an experiment in the best techniques for staying awake. Several lawmakers appeared to rest their eyes or doze at their desks, often burying their faces in their hands. At one point, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, 48, one of the youngest senators, trotted into the chamber and did an extended stretch.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, missed votes to attend his stepfather’s funeral.
The measure follows five previous measures totaling about $4 trillion that Congress has passed since last spring and comes amid signs of a potential reversal.
Vaccine supplies are rising, deaths and case numbers have fallen but remain appallingly high, and hiring was surprisingly strong last month, although the economy remains 10 million jobs below its levels. before the pandemic.
The Senate package was repeatedly delayed as Democrats made eleventh-hour changes aimed at balancing demands from their competing moderate and progressive factions.
Work on the bill stalled on Friday after an agreement among Democrats on extending emergency unemployment benefits appeared to fall apart. Nearly 12 hours later, top Democrats and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the chamber, said they had a deal, and the Senate approved it with a vote. voted 50 to 49.
As part of their compromise, weekly $300 emergency unemployment checks — in addition to regular state benefits — would be renewed, with a final payment made Sept. 6. There would also be tax breaks on some of these payments, helping people get kicked out of the pandemic. jobs and risked tax penalties on the benefits.
The House relief bill, broadly similar to that of the Senate, provided weekly benefits of $400 through August. The current $300-a-week payments expire March 14, and Democrats want the bill on Biden’s desk by then to avoid default.
Manchin and Republicans have argued that higher unemployment benefits discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many economists reject.
The unemployment benefits deal was not the only move that showed the grip of the moderates.
The Senate voted Friday to eject a House-approved increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, a major defeat for progressives. Eight Democrats opposed the increase, suggesting Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other liberals pledging to continue the effort in the coming months will face an uphill battle.
Party leaders also agreed to restrict eligibility for the $1,400 stimulus checks that will go to most Americans. This amount would be gradually reduced until, under the Senate bill, it reaches zero for individuals earning $80,000 and couples earning $160,000. These amounts were higher in the House version.
Many of the amendments rejected by the GOP were either attempts to force Democrats to vote politically awkward or for Republicans to demonstrate their zeal for issues that appeal to their constituents.
These included futile efforts to stop the bill’s education funds from going to schools closed for the pandemic that do not reopen, or that allow male-born transgender students to participate in sports. feminine. An amendment would have blocked aid to so-called sanctuary cities, where local authorities are reluctant to help federal officials round up immigrants who are illegally in the United States.
Tribune reporter Becky Jacobs contributed to this report.