Senate passes massive COVID-19 relief bill, sending changes back to House

Democratic leaders in the House will need to convince members to back changes

Vice President Kamala Harris departs from the Senate floor after casting a tie-breaking vote on Thursday, March 4, 2021.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Vice President Kamala Harris departs from the Senate floor after casting a tie-breaking vote on Thursday, March 4, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 6, 2021 at 9:21am, Updated at 12:33pm

The Senate approved a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package Saturday, sending it back to the House where Democratic leaders will need to convince their members to back changes to unemployment insurance and tax rebate checks.

The 50-49 party-line vote capped off the more than 24 hours of continuous voting, courtesy of the fast-track process Democrats are using to advance the pandemic aid package. Under budget reconciliation, senators could offer as many amendments as they wanted.

Republicans filed nearly 600 amendments to the bill, but only brought up a fraction of those for debate and votes. Democrats were mostly united throughout the process, rejecting 29 Republican amendments. Overall, six amendments were adopted, including two GOP proposals.

None of the amendment votes nor the final vote required Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking powers in the Senate after Alaska GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan left Friday to attend a funeral.

In order to garner the support of all 50 Democrats needed to advance the package, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer brokered deals to reduce federal unemployment insurance payments from the $400 included in the House-passed package to $300 per week through Sep. 6. He also agreed to reduce the number of people who would receive direct payments by lowering the phaseout for individuals from $100,000 to $80,000 and for joint filers from $200,000 to $160,000.

President Joe Biden backs both of the changes, according to White House statements, but some House Democrats are frustrated with the compromises.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., said on Twitter that she was “disgusted” with some of her colleagues for the Senate changes, including the removal of a $15 minimum wage increase that was pulled after the Senate parliamentarian determined it violated that chamber’s rules.

“What is the Party of the People doing when instead of putting our full effort into helping struggling working families, we're arguing over ways to toss them aside?” she wrote.

Democrats have an especially slim 221-211 majority in the House, meaning even a handful of defections could lead to a stalemate.

In a statement after the Senate vote, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said his chamber will vote on the Senate-passed package on Tuesday.

The White House and Democratic lawmakers have been racing to enact the legislation before the $300 weekly federal unemployment insurance benefits approved in the previous COVID-19 package expire on March 14.

Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after the vote that he had no doubt Biden would sign the measure into law before the deadline.

He added that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been in the loop on changes the Senate made to the bill. "Our staffs have been in touch and she knows all about them and she wants to pass this bill," Schumer said.

Amendments galore

In order to get around the Senate’s 60-vote legislative filibuster, Democrats advanced the measure through the budget reconciliation process. That required senators to go through the no-holds-barred amendment voting session known as vote-a-rama.

The chamber began that process just after 11 a.m. Friday. The first vote unexpectedly remained open for nearly 12 hours — breaking the modern record for longest Senate vote — as Schumer struggled to reach agreement with moderate West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III on an amendment addressing the bill’s unemployment insurance provision. An evening détente eventually cleared the way for the Senate to move on.

Just after 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Schumer announced the process would wrap up midday once lawmakers voted on about 14 more amendments.

“I would ask that we all stay in our seats so we can expedite the process,” he said. “I would ask that we try to accomplish these votes in no more than 10 minutes so that we can move forward.”

Republicans held to their promise to make the process tedious for their Democratic colleagues, bringing up more than 30 amendments for debate and floor votes. The Senate ultimately adopted two Republican-backed amendments, though one was essentially voided by a later Democratic amendment.

Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran teamed up with Delaware Democrat Thomas R. Carper on an amendment, adopted by voice vote, that would delay implementation of a provision that would overhaul an Education Department policy known as the "90-10" rule.

The rule refers to a requirement that for-profit colleges get at least 10 percent of their revenue from sources outside of Education Department student aid programs. But under what critics call a "loophole" in the policy, money veterans use to pay for college under the GI Bill and Pentagon tuition assistance programs isn't counted under the 90 percent federal revenue cap. That's led to aggressive targeting of veterans to enroll in for-profit schools, critics say.

The House-passed bill and underlying Senate substitute amendment would eliminate that exemption and count GI Bill funds as part of for-profit schools' federal revenue.

House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., celebrated the original provision’s inclusion, saying in a statement that the “loophole incentivizes low-quality, for-profit schools to use predatory tactics to aggressively recruit servicemembers and veterans.”

But some veterans advocates as well as for-profit schools objected to the fix, arguing it would deprive veterans of quality education options. To give the Education Department, for-profit colleges and veterans time to adjust to the new policy and allow for potential further bipartisan legislation, the Moran-Carper amendment would postpone the change to allow for a rulemaking process to begin Oct. 1 and delay financial penalties for noncompliance until 2024.

“Some for-profit schools in this country do a very good job working with our veterans, preparing them for lives and careers. Unfortunately, we've seen way too many that do not,” Carper said.

Money for contractors, restaurants

Senators also adopted by voice vote a proposal from Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Manchin to reallocate less than one percent of the elementary and secondary school emergency relief fund to programs for homeless children.

“This amendment ensures these kids, no matter the trauma and challenges they face outside of the classroom, will have a safe place to sleep and access to the wrap-around services that they need,” Murkowski said.  

Just before approving the package, the Senate voted to approve an amendment from Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would continue payments to certain classified government contractors through the end of the fiscal year.

Warner said that not including the provision could result in those contractors leaving the federal government to work for the private sector, “seriously” putting national security at risk. The amendment was adopted on a 93-6 vote.

A proposal to alter unemployment insurance payments from Ohio Republican Rob Portman, was also technically adopted following a 50-49 vote. But a later amendment from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that contained Democrats' compromise agreement on unemployment insurance superseded Portman’s proposal, according to a Democratic aide not authorized to speak publicly. The Wyden amendment was also approved in a 50-49 vote with Manchin voting for both.  

The Portman amendment would have set the federal unemployment benefits at $300 a week through July 18. 

Another amendment added to the package came from New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan. Her provision would require elementary and secondary schools that receive federal coronavirus aid funding to release plans for a “safe return to in-person instruction” within 30 days of receiving the funds. It was adopted following a 51-48 vote.

The final amendment offered, a "perfecting amendment" from Schumer adopted by voice vote, made assorted changes to the underlying text including a $3.6 billion boost to grants for the hard-hit restaurant industry. That would bring the total to $28.6 billion that can be used by restaurants, bars, distilleries and more to cover necessary expenses like payroll, rent, utilities and supplies.

"This relief fund gives hope to the entire independent restaurant and bar community — line cooks, managers, bartenders, and operators from coffee shops, food trucks, bakeries and bistros can rest a bit more soundly tonight knowing help is on the way," Independent Restaurant Coalition co-founder Tom Colicchio said in a statement.

The Distilled Spirits Council also applauded the Senate bill, while calling on Congress to provide the full $120 billion proposed in bipartisan bills in both chambers.

Kathleen Bever, Mark Burnett, David Lerman, Lindsey McPherson and Jacob Metz contributed to this report.