Senate in for another long night, and day, on pandemic relief

The 'vote-a-rama' on amendments is likely to begin around midday Friday

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer makes his way to his weekly news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer makes his way to his weekly news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 4, 2021 at 4:11pm, Updated at 9:50pm

The Senate planned to begin voting on amendments to a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package Friday after clerks pull an all-nighter reading the text of the 628-page measure aloud on the floor.

The insistence of a reading by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., ensured a slow start to deliberations on a mammoth coronavirus aid package that Republicans appeared to uniformly oppose.

"So often we rush these massive bills that are hundreds of thousands of pages long," Johnson said Thursday. "How can you craft effective amendments on a bill that you haven't even seen or haven't been given time to read?"

The “vote-a-rama” on amendments was likely to begin around midday Friday, senators were told Thursday night. That estimate assumes senators would forgo some of the 20 hours allotted for general debate under the rules of budget reconciliation, the process used to avoid a Republican filibuster.

But signs emerged late Thursday that Republicans might be willing to move more expeditiously once the amendment process begins. “Once we get our top 40 amendments in … then you'll see diminishing returns set in and probably some movement towards concluding it,” Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., told reporters.

Democrats also cleared one key hurdle late Thursday when the Congressional Budget Office said that the substitute amendment, which Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer introduced Thursday afternoon, would cost $1.88 trillion, meeting the budget resolution’s 10-year deficit limit.

Earlier, the New York Democrat said he was prepared to remain in session all weekend if necessary to pass the bill.

"No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week," Schumer said Thursday morning on the floor. "We all know this will merely delay the inevitable. It will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks who work very hard, day in, day out, to help the Senate function.”

The procedural skirmishing came after the Senate voted 51-50 to proceed to the measure, with Vice President Kamala Harris on hand to break the tie. That vote allowed the Senate to take up the House bill, which that chamber passed early Saturday morning on a narrow 219-212 vote.

Schumer's substitute amendment to the House bill incorporates myriad changes sought by Democratic senators. Those include narrowing the reach of tax rebate checks away from upper-income households and placing additional restrictions on some $350 billion in aid to state and local governments.

The measure would offer a new round of tax rebate checks, expanded unemployment benefits, state and local government aid, vaccine funding and money to help schools reopen safely, among many other things. The fiscal 2021 budget resolution allows for the deficit to increase by nearly $1.9 trillion to accommodate the emergency spending without any offsetting cuts or tax increases.

Republicans have attacked the measure as excessively costly for an economy on the mend and insufficiently targeted to those most in need of help. They have also complained about provisions they said have nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, such as a financial rescue for failing union pension plans.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the flurry of changes in recent days demonstrated Democrats were still having problems sorting through issues on their side.

"It seems they've had some difficulty getting to the starting line," McConnell said. "Their own members have barely been able to read this thing, let alone shape it.”

Last-minute tweaks

One of the biggest changes to the House-passed package made in recent days would restrict eligibility for the tax rebate checks of up to $1,400. A tweak from Senate Democrats would lower the income threshold at which direct payments cut off completely, from $100,000 to $80,000 for individuals and from $200,000 to $160,000 for joint filers.

Schumer's substitute amendment, which will serve as the underlying measure for Senate debate, would cut back direct aid to local governments to free up $10 billion for states to fund "critical capital projects" like broadband access.

There are also numerous new restrictions on the state and local money, including a requirement that only 50 percent of the funds be made available up front, along with more limited uses for the funds.

[Draft Senate aid plan would cut direct funds to cities, counties]

In the latest changes, the second tranche of funds would be available for states as well as localities a year after the first tranche. An earlier version would have made the second pot available for states only in 2023 or after 80 percent of the initial tranche had been spent, whichever is sooner.

The updated text seemed to win over Angus King, I-Maine, who wanted to ensure small communities in states like his got access to direct aid.

“I think I’m concerned that it not be just for big cities or large counties but that smaller towns can participate as well," King, who caucuses with Democrats, said Thursday. "My understanding is that that’s the way it’s going to work.”

A Senate Democratic aide pointed to several other changes negotiated in recent days from the House-passed version, such as expanding employee retention tax credits to startup firms and boosting the amount of money for emergency food and shelter programs.

It would also make "shuttered venue operators," like theaters and museums, eligible both for grants and Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans, though the total amount of aid to each entity would remain the same.

Out of $3 billion appropriated for the Economic Development Administration, the changes would boost the allocation for states and communities that have suffered revenue losses from the pandemic's hit to tourism, travel and outdoor recreation from $450 million to $750 million.

Other changes include carving out $2.75 billion from overall funding for K-12 education and directing it to private schools that serve a "significant percentage" of low-income students. In addition, $3 billion would be set aside for education technology, plus $1.25 billion each for summer and afterschool programs.

And graduates who obtain student loan forgiveness during the next five years wouldn't have to pay taxes on that loan forgiveness, which ordinarily is treated as taxable income.

Other adds in the latest version include $300 million for Federal Emergency Management Agency firefighting and fire preparedness grants, plus $100 million for FEMA emergency management grants to states.

On the health care front, the latest version would set aside $8.5 billion for rural health care providers, apparently offset by extending by one year customs user fees that were set to expire in 2029 — an oft-used budgetary gimmick to keep costs down on paper.

It also would preserve an earlier Medicare reimbursement rate increase for hospitals in what are considered "all-urban" states — New Jersey, Delaware and Rhode Island — despite GOP opposition.

Another key health care change would fully subsidize health insurance premiums under the federal law known as COBRA for workers who leave their jobs. The House-passed bill and earlier Senate drafts would have required workers to chip in 15 percent of their premiums, while subsidizing the remainder.

'Byrd droppings'

Republicans touted several of their wins, despite their opposition to the broader bill. In discussions with the Senate parliamentarian, Republicans successfully got several provisions eliminated for "Byrd rule" violations, a complicated series of requirements to ensure each item in a reconciliation bill has specific budgetary purposes.

High-profile "Byrd droppings" included the elimination of legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and money for a Silicon Valley transit project and a bridge connecting upstate New York and Canada.

But Republicans also said they successfully got provisions that would let states and localities use direct aid for general revenue replacement. Of funding for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, GOP arguments resulted in money specifically for "equity commissions" and "legal centers" being removed.

A provision that would have set up a special workers' compensation fund for longshoremen who contracted COVID-19, even if not while on the job, was jettisoned.

Medicaid coverage for inmates prior to their release from jail was removed, as was health care funding for "congregate settings," including prisons and psychiatric facilities. Money to help care for unaccompanied children who'd crossed the border illegally was also removed from the bill.

Both the congregate settings and unaccompanied minors funds were found to be a Byrd rule violation because those provisions were in the Judiciary panel's jurisdiction, a committee that didn't get a reconciliation instruction under the budget blueprint.

Finally, Republicans successfully argued to remove a set-aside within $15 billion for Small Business Administration grants for certain businesses demonstrating substantial harm. They said removing those provisions would enable more businesses to obtain $5,000 cash grants from the SBA.

Paul M. Krawzak, Jennifer Shutt, Lindsey McPherson and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.