Dueling unemployment proposals delay Senate votes on aid bill

Competing amendments to scale back unemployment benefits snarled Senate debate on $1.9 trillion aid package

Sen. Tom Carper walks in the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Tom Carper walks in the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 5, 2021 at 11:37am, Updated at 3:42pm

A dispute over expanded unemployment benefits stalled the Senate's progress Friday on a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package.

Democrats thought they had reached an agreement among themselves for an amendment that would scale back the size of expanded weekly benefits from $400 to $300, while extending the benefit through Oct. 4 instead of Aug. 29. The amendment, to be offered by Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper, also calls for exempting from taxes up to $10,200 in unemployment insurance benefits.

But Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, was pushing an alternative amendment that would extend the $300 weekly benefit only through July 18. That proposal was giving Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., second thoughts about whether to back the Carper-brokered compromise between his party's moderate and progressive wings.

Manchin has said he prefers ending the unemployment benefit over the summer when businesses in his state and elsewhere should be reopening and looking for workers. “Right now I feel bad for Joe Manchin,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. “I hope the Geneva Convention applies to him.”

The Portman amendment, which Republicans said would cut $128 billion from the underlying bill's price tag, won support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business, which said they would make the Portman amendment a "key vote" on their annual scorecard.

"We think it's a bipartisan amendment and I think right now arms are being twisted," Thune said. "I think the reason the Democrats are shutting this place down right now is because they are fearful they are going to lose."

'I like good amendments'

The vote calculus is simple: if Manchin supports the Portman amendment and the Ohio Republican can keep his own caucus united, the amendment would be adopted with a simple majority. But that could scramble the House’s vote next week, after that chamber passed the initial version with $400 weekly benefits through Aug. 29.

If Democrats can keep Manchin on board with Carper's amendment, which the White House supports, then their alternative would win out.

The West Virginia Democrat wasn’t commenting on his plans for the moment. “I like good amendments,” was all he’d say to reporters clustered outside the floor.

There was also some question on the GOP side about whether there’d be enough support for Portman’s amendment, given there are those who don’t want to extend unemployment benefits at all.

The dispute forced Democrats to hold open the first vote of the day for more than four hours.

Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., offered an amendment to add back the minimum wage increase Democrats were forced to drop due because the parliamentarian determined it wouldn't comply with budget reconciliation rules. The Budget panel's ranking member, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised a point of order, creating a 60-vote hurdle for Sanders' amendment.

The vote was stuck at 42-58, with virtually no chance for Sanders' amendment to overcome the point of order, several hours into a vote-a-rama that was already expected to stretch into Saturday morning.

The unemployment benefits skirmish commenced shortly after senators began debating the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 package on Friday — one year to the day after that chamber passed the first $8.3 billion pandemic relief package.

Debate on this bill is much more partisan than on previous relief packages, with Republicans overwhelmingly opposed to its total spending level as well as provisions they argue are not directly related to vaccine distribution or school reopening.

“Legislating strictly along party lines in a 50-50 Senate is complicated,” tweeted Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, as the minimum wage amendment vote was held open.

In an attempt to delay action, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., on Thursday forced the clerks to read the 628-page bill on the floor.

Johnson, however, did not object when Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., asked for unanimous consent for the Senate to begin debating the bill at 9 a.m. on Friday. The chamber moved on to amendment votes shortly after 11 a.m.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday morning he believes just 9 percent of the package addresses “the fight against the virus itself” and only 1 percent is geared toward vaccine research and distribution. The Kentucky Republican said his colleagues “have many ideas to improve the bill.”

“And we’re about to vote on all kinds of amendments with hopes that some of the ideas make it into the final product,” he said.

GOP senators had filed more than 500 amendments and procedural motions to change the bill as of Friday afternoon, and were expected to request votes on a substantial number of them as the Senate progresses through the vote-a-rama.

Thin margin

Any substantial changes to the package could endanger its prospects for final passage in the House, where the package passed by a narrow vote of 219-212 on Feb. 27. The vast majority of House Democrats are waiting to see what the bill looks like once the Senate passes it.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said Wednesday that she wants to hear a concrete plan for approving a minimum wage increase.

“We've got to figure out what the plan is for minimum wage. And it can't be weakened,” she said.

Biden's COVID-19 relief proposal and the House bill included a provision to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour in 2025. That was removed from the Senate’s bill after the parliamentarian determined it would violate the rules that govern the reconciliation process.

That fast-track legislative tool is how Democrats are advancing the relief package without running headlong into the Senate’s legislative filibuster, which requires that at least 60 senators support a bill in order for it to advance to a vote on passage.

Speaking on the Senate floor on Friday morning, Sanders urged his colleagues to support his amendment as well as the package as a whole. "In my view this legislation is the most consequential and significant legislation for working families that Congress has debated for many, many decades," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer told senators to prepare for a lengthy amendment process, saying “the Senate is going to take a lot of votes, but we are going to power through and finish this bill however long it takes."