Relief bill starts to take shape as budget votes approach

Manchin supports proceeding to budget resolution, but opposes putting $15 minimum wage in COVID-19 package

The election of Sen. Jon Ossoff, left, enabled Democrats to take the majority, but Sen. Joe Manchin III's status as their 50th vote may limit what they can do. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The election of Sen. Jon Ossoff, left, enabled Democrats to take the majority, but Sen. Joe Manchin III's status as their 50th vote may limit what they can do. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 2, 2021 at 1:53pm, Updated at 4:52pm

The Senate voted to move forward with debate Tuesday on a budget blueprint that will set the stage for filibuster-proof passage of a massive coronavirus relief package.

The 50-49 vote opens debate on the Democrats’ budget resolution, which would carve out room for up to $1.9 trillion in additional deficit spending, as proposed by President Joe Biden, on top of $3.5 trillion enacted last year.

Republicans say that’s far too much to spend, particularly with money still unspent from previous aid rounds and signs of life for the U.S. economy even without additional “stimulus.”

But Democrats argue the lingering public health emergency as well as 11 million people still unemployed necessitates “going big,” as Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told senators on a call Tuesday.

“[Biden] was very strong in emphasizing the need for a big, bold package,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters. He added that Yellen argued that a competing $618 billion GOP proposal wasn’t enough, in part because it left out provisions like expansions of earned income tax credits and child tax credits for the working poor.

Use of the reconciliation process doesn’t preclude bipartisan support. But the immediate concern is whether Democrats will have a simple majority on their own side, as the spotlight falls intensely on Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

Manchin has expressed concern about the size of the additional $1,400 rebate checks in Biden’s plan, for instance, and on Tuesday he said he would support a higher minimum wage, perhaps $11 per hour, but not the $15 hourly wage Democrats have promised.

Biden quickly tweeted his support for the $15 minimum wage, for which Democrats are hoping for a favorable ruling from the Congressional Budget Office. The question has been whether it would have a substantial budgetary impact in order to comply with reconciliation rules.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to call the $15 minimum wage proposal a “red line” in the negotiations, however. And while a White House official said the $1,400 rebate check amount was nonnegotiable, the official didn’t say the same about the current income thresholds in the plan, which are $75,000 per individual and $150,000 for married couples filing jointly, above which the check amounts scale down.

Manchin supported the motion to proceed to the budget resolution but made clear he’d be reserving the right to object down the road when it comes time to vote on the actual reconciliation bill. In a statement Tuesday, Manchin served notice that “our focus must be targeted on the COVID-19 crisis and Americans who have been most impacted by the pandemic.”

Manchin’s words, which he said he also shared with Biden, were a warning to Democrats not to load up the package with unrelated measures. “I will only support proposals that will get us through and end the pain of this pandemic,” Manchin said.

In separate comments to reporters, however, Manchin didn’t rule out supporting a bill that achieves much of what Democratic leaders and the president want.

“Nothing should be taken off the table,” he said, adding that his top priority now was a commitment to a bipartisan process: “We are committed, and everyone has committed that this reconciliation will be done in an open, bipartisan way.”

By its nature, reconciliation could be considered a bipartisan process. Senators get two “vote-a-rama” opportunities: during the budget resolution debate and again during the reconciliation floor debate. Amendments are limited only in that they need to be germane to the underlying measure, and if they propose more spending than the budget allows for, offsets need to be added.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said that “we’ll be facing multiple amendments later in the week.” A Senate Democratic aide pointed out that the modern record for amendments during a vote-a-rama was 44, in 2008. But the amendment process can also begin inside of the 50-hour limit, if senators on one or both sides of the aisle yield back time.

The House is voting on its virtually identical blueprint on Wednesday, although the chamber will have to vote again on final adoption, possibly this weekend, of the joint measure after additions made by the Senate.

The Senate budget plan includes reconciliation instructions to 11 authorizing committees to write their portions of a bill based on Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package.

But it’s also apparent that Democrats want to go beyond the outlines of the pandemic rescue plan proposed by Biden.

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A statement from incoming Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., mentions action on shoring up multiemployer pension plans as being potentially part of the legislation, for example, in addition to raising the minimum wage, increasing unemployment benefits and other provisions proposed by Biden.

Once both chambers have acted on the budget resolution, the process of writing the reconciliation bill can begin. That measure also will require only a simple majority to pass the Senate, rather than the usual 60 votes needed to end debate.

In recent years, reconciliation has been a partisan maneuver employed when the same party controls Congress and the White House. Schumer urged Republicans to participate in passing a pandemic relief bill, saying, “We welcome your ideas, your input, your revisions.”

“There is nothing about the process of a budget resolution or reconciliation, for that matter, that forecloses the possibility of bipartisanship,” he said.

Since 1980, Schumer added, “the budget process has been used 17 times, 17 times, to pass serious bipartisan legislation.” But Schumer also said several times that the Senate will not “dilute, dither or delay.”

“The needs of the American people are so demanding, we need to think big, and we need to act quickly,” he said.

Sanders drew a contrast to successful GOP efforts in the past to cut taxes through reconciliation, including in 2001 and 2003 under President George W. Bush and in 2017 under President Donald Trump.

“If Republicans could use reconciliation to help the wealthy and the powerful, we can use reconciliation to help Americans recover from the worst economic and public health crisis in the modern history of our country,” Sanders said in a statement.

The Senate committees with the largest instructions include Finance, with $1.296 trillion; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, with $305 billion; and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, with $89 billion.

Overall, the reconciliation instructions would direct the committees to write legislation that would increase the deficit over 10 years by no more than $1.889 trillion.

The other committees and their instructions are:

  • Agriculture: $23 billion
  • Commerce, Science and Transportation: $36 billion
  • Environment and Public Works: $3 billion
  • Foreign Relations: $10 billion
  • Homeland Security: $51 billion
  • Indian Affairs: $9 billion
  • Small Business: $50 billion
  • Veterans’ Affairs: $17 billion

In practice, much of the Senate committee work is going to occur behind the scenes because senators will be busy with the impeachment trial next week.

The immediate hands-on work will take place in a dozen House committees under that chamber’s reconciliation instructions. Those panels have until Feb. 16 to deliver their recommendations to the House Budget Committee, which will bundle them into one package.

Jennifer Shutt, Niels Lesniewski and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.