Senate approves $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill after chaotic all-night debate

March 9, 2021

“This is the biggest thing that most of us have ever been involved in,” Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told The Daily Beast on Saturday afternoon, March 6—after a staggering 25 hours of debate and compromise ended in the passage on the Senate floor of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

The bill passed 50-49, along party lines—with Senator Dan Sullivan (Alaska-R) absent for a family funeral. Because the bill encompasses some modifications to the original legislation, it now will go back to the House on Tuesday for a final vote. It is expected to pass easily there, before reaching President Joe Biden’s desk for signature into law.

“The American Rescue Plan will go down as one of the most sweeping federal recovery efforts in history,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said shortly before final passage, adding that he wanted the American people to know “help is on the way. That their government is going to give them one final push to get us over the finish line.”

Biden praised the bill’s passage at the White House, saying “When we took office 45 days ago, I promised the American people help was on the way. Today I can say we’ve taken one more giant step forward in delivering on that promise, that help is on the way. Everything in this package is designed to relieve the suffering and to meet the most urgent needs of the nation and put us in a better position to prevail.”

The president reinforced, “Over 85% of American households will get direct payments of $1,400 per person.  For a typical middle-class family of four—husband and wife working, making $100,000 a year total, with three kids—they’ll get $5,600—I mean, with two kids —will get $5,600, and it’ll be on the way soon.”

According to a report by The Daily Beast, “The process wasn’t meant to be easy, but the bill’s journey to passage was downright shambolic, even by congressional standards. The Senate was in session for over 24 hours, voting, debating, and considering amendments to the mammoth legislation.”

The Daily Beast attributed much of the delay to pushback from one member, centrist Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), whose reservations about the bill’s unemployment benefits unexpectedly froze the floor for nearly 12 hours on Friday, as Democratic leadership and the White House frantically worked him to support the latest deal.

Manchin ultimately got on board with the party’s preferred amendment to the unemployment plan, which reduces monthly jobless benefits to $300; but extends them an additional month. However, he also supported a GOP plan to keep benefits at $400 but cut them off in June—an amendment that passed, but will be superseded by the Democratic plan, aides said.

The bill includes:

  • Stimulus checks of up to $1,400 for hundreds of millions of American adults and children;
  • Weekly jobless aid of $300 until September 6;
  • Child tax credit of up to $3,600 per child;
  • $130 billion for school reopenings.
  • $350 billion for state and local governments;
  • $30 billion in assistance for renters and landlords;
  • $50 billion for small businesses; and
  • $160 billion for vaccine development.

Democrats want Biden’s signature on the bill to be dry before March 14, when current pandemic unemployment benefits expire for millions of Americans. House progressives, who fought for a $15 wage and expansive benefits, have been inclined to back whatever the Senate sends them—but some found their limits tested by the power play from Manchin and moderates.

Commenting on the changes from the House bill, Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-New Jersey) asked on Twitter, “What are we doing here? I’m frankly disgusted with some of my colleagues and question whether I can support this bill.”

Internal Democratic bargaining wasn’t the only reason that the de facto March 14 deadline is closer than many Democrats would like. Staunch Republican opposition has slowed it down: On Thursday, Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconin) forced the Senate’s clerks to read every word of the nearly 700-page bill aloud on the floor—an exercise in raw obstructionism that delayed the chamber’s consideration of the bill by over 10 hours.

While past iterations of COVID relief have been largely bipartisan, Republicans have coalesced around opposing Biden’s first major legislative effort on the grounds it is too pricey, not targeted enough to the neediest people, and full of so-called “blue state bailouts” to local governments—although many Republican-run jurisdictions would receive relief funds, The Daily Beast notes.

Shortly before the voting spree, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) put the onus on Democrats for breaking the “bipartisan streak” of pandemic relief. “They are dead-set on ramming through an ideological spending spree packed with non-COVID-related policies,” he charged.

Democrats explained away their lack of GOP support by frequently citing public opinion polling showing that a bipartisan majority of Americans backed their plan. A Morning Consult/POLITICO poll from Wednesday, March3,  found that 77% of all voters, and over half of GOP voters, backed the plan, even when it was labeled as a Democratic proposal.

Research contact: @thedailybeast

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