Biden coronavirus relief plan clears Senate budget hurdle after ‘vote-a-rama’

Final blueprint adoption on Friday in House would set the stage for consideration of $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package

Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tiebreaking vote on the budget resolution. (Greg Nash/The Hill/Pool)
Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tiebreaking vote on the budget resolution. (Greg Nash/The Hill/Pool)
Posted February 4, 2021 at 5:43pm, Updated February 5, 2021 at 5:41am

The Senate early Friday morning adopted a budget blueprint that would grease the wheels for a partisan coronavirus relief package that Democratic leaders are getting ready to draft next week.

The budget resolution was adopted by a vote of 51-50. Vice President Kamala Harris cast the decisive vote after senators deadlocked along party lines.

The measure, which the House is expected to adopt later Friday, would set aside room for up to $1.89 trillion in deficit spending to combat the pandemic and provide financial aid to millions of Americans while the economy recovers.

Republicans said they support more assistance, but not nearly in the amounts backed by President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders, noting some $1 trillion in previously approved aid remains to be spent. They also complained of extraneous matter they said doesn't belong in an emergency measure, like legislation to more than double the federal minimum wage, to $15 per hour.

The implementing legislation for the budget reconciliation package, which can bypass the Senate's usual 60-vote filibuster threshold and pass with a simple majority, would start to take shape in a dozen House committees next week.

The goal is to get a final bill to Biden's desk before enhanced unemployment benefits expire March 14. Airline payroll support provided in the same December aid package lapses at the end of March, and major carriers are serving notice that thousands of furloughs are coming if no further relief is forthcoming.

The House adopted a very similar fiscal 2021 blueprint on Wednesday, but the version the Senate wrapped up early Friday will need to go back to the House for final adoption in that chamber because of some technical differences as well as amendments the Senate added.

Senate adoption came in the wee hours of Friday morning after a "vote-a-rama" session that began at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. Nearly 900 amendments were filed, featuring numerous GOP messaging ploys on a range of hot-button topics such as illegal immigration, reopening public schools and nursing home deaths during the pandemic.

Only a fraction were actually offered, and those adopted were mostly nonbinding and in some cases had little to do with the underlying topic.

For example, Republicans scored a couple of symbolic wins on energy policy, drawing Democrats from oil and gas-friendly states. An amendment from Indiana's Mike Braun to put the Senate on record against any potential move by the Biden administration to ban hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," was adopted, 57-43. And an amendment from Steve Daines of Montana backing a reversal of Biden's decision to scrap the Keystone XL pipeline project was adopted on a 52-48 vote.

However, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Braun and Daines amendments had been stripped out of the final text of the measure by the final substitute amendment adopted.

But some amendments were bipartisan, such as an amendment from Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., backing support for restaurants and bars that will be difficult for Democratic leaders to ignore in the final aid bill.

Many of the amendments, like the Sinema-Wicker proposal that was adopted 90-10, would provide for a "deficit-neutral reserve fund" to adjust budget levels to accommodate future legislation. In practice such amendments are nonbinding, but they can send signals that influence future legislative efforts. And even with a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill, Democratic leaders can't afford to take the votes of centrists like Sinema for granted.

West Virginia's Joe Manchin III is another Democrat that party leaders can't afford to buck. His amendment with Susan Collins, R-Maine, intended to ensure that upper-income households don't benefit from the $1,400 checks Democrats want to include in the relief bill, was adopted on a 99-1 vote.

'Nothing to do with COVID relief'

Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., criticized partisan GOP amendments, saying many of them “have absolutely nothing to do with COVID relief," which is the subject of the underlying budget.

“My Republican colleagues have filed amendments to make President Trump's tax breaks to the wealthiest people in our country and the most profitable corporations permanent, which would provide a massive windfall to the top 1 percent and the billionaire class, who have already seen their wealth go up by over $1 trillion during this pandemic,” he said.

Sanders also slammed amendments on undocumented immigrants, which he said are designed to “exacerbate the … xenophobia which exists in this country, despite the fact that many undocumented workers are doing some of the most essential and dangerous work in our country.”

On that score, Republicans had earlier telegraphed that an amendment was coming from Todd Young of Indiana and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, which would bar giving $1,400 rebate checks or any other temporary, tax-based direct payments to undocumented immigrants.

Eight mostly centrist Democrats defected and the amendment was adopted, 58-42, over the opposition of party leaders. Young stressed the language wouldn't preclude the next round of payments from going to mixed-status households with some undocumented family members in the U.S. But activists have been seeking to loosen eligibility in the next round of aid, so those undocumented relatives can also qualify.

The amendment's adoption was causing some heartburn for progressive House Democrats who have to vote on the measure Friday.

"Absolutely" the amendment could cause problems in the House, said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. "The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, we made very clear that … taxpaying immigrants — documented or undocumented — should benefit from the taxes they are paying."

Democratic sources said they were confident the votes would be there Friday, however, given the importance of getting the broader relief package passed and the delays a stalled budget resolution would cause.

But the final substitute amendment that stripped out the GOP energy amendments saved Democrats trouble on the immigrant front by removing the Young-Cotton amendment as well. Harris also broke the tie on that 51-50 vote.

Republican amendments

Before the voting marathon, Senate Republicans highlighted several other amendments they were offering to put Democrats on the spot.

Tim Scott of South Carolina, John Barrasso of Wyoming and James Lankford of Oklahoma collaborated on an amendment that would potentially withhold funding to states that underreport nursing home deaths resulting from COVID-19. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer's home state of New York has been in the news on that topic of late, after state Attorney General Letitia James said New York had underreported coronavirus-related nursing home deaths by 50 percent.

The nursing home amendment was rejected on a party-line vote.

Lankford and Scott joined Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in an amendment to bar tax increases on small businesses during a national emergency related to a pandemic. Democrats decided not to fight that one, and it was adopted, 100-0.

Another tax-related amendment from John Thune, R-S.D., seeks to protect people who went to work in other states during the pandemic, in many cases to support the fight against COVID-19, from being hit with an “unfair” tax burden. The amendment, adopted by voice vote, is aimed at limiting the authority of states or other taxing bodies from taxing that income.

Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Scott teamed up on an amendment that would limit or cut off emergency pandemic funding to K-12 schools that do not reopen after their teachers are vaccinated. It was rejected on a party-line vote.

Several other amendments were adopted with broad bipartisan support, including a Collins amendment expressing support for health care provider funds, particularly rural hospitals, adopted on a 99-1 vote. A Barrasso amendment to back aid for schools in states that suffer revenue loss due to federal curbs on oil and gas exploration was also adopted, 98-2.

And an amendment from Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, intended to prevent implementation of a $15 federal minimum wage during the pandemic, was adopted on a voice vote. Sanders, the lead backer of the minimum wage proposal, said the measure would phase in the increase over five years, rather than impose the entire boost right away.

"I will support this amendment because nobody is talking about doubling the federal minimum wage during the pandemic," Sanders said.

How much is too much?

Earlier in the debate, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., expressed the view of many Democrats that it is riskier to provide not enough aid than to provide too much.

Van Hollen blamed Republicans for negotiating down a previous relief package and causing a slower economic recovery than was necessary.

“We've been in this place before,” he said, referring to the financial meltdown in 2009 when Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a roughly $800 billion stimulus package.

“So we ended up with a divided Congress, and an inadequate recovery bill,” Van Hollen said. “And our Republican colleagues spent the next many, many years complaining that the economic recovery after the downturn had taken too long, was the longest and slowest economic recovery in history, when if we had been permitted to go big and bold, we could have changed that trajectory.”

But Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., laid out a case that the $1.9 trillion plan Biden seeks is excessive.

“It appears not to be informed by any objective measure of needs, and the only organizing principle in this bill that I can figure out is the desire to spend a massive amount of money on things that aren't required,” he said.

For example, referring to the $350 billion in state and local aid proposed by Biden, Toomey said state and local tax collections set a record in 2019 and then were up $21 billion in 2020.

“They broke the record,” he said, adding that Congress had already provided $572 billion in aid to states and localities in one form or another in 2020 through several aid bills.

“Look, let's not kid ourselves,” Toomey said. “This is just a complete bailout of insolvent and irresponsible states.”

Chris Cioffi, David Lerman and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.