Senate braces for brutal debate on Biden’s Covid aid bill


Senate Democrats are confident they can pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill well before the official March 14 deadline. But Republicans are setting up a grueling debate that appears likely to carry the partisan battle into the weekend.

Early Thursday afternoon, Senate Democrats are expecting to rally their 50 senators to kick off debate on their own version of the stimulus bill, a key test vote that will demonstrate that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has the support to prevail.

The vote will take place against the backdrop of heightened security concerns at the Capitol. The House cleared out Wednesday — one day ahead of schedule — amid the threat of another QAnon-inspired attack on the building. Senate Democrats will likely require an appearance from Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie-breaking vote on the relief package, while police and National Guard troops beef up their presence around the Capitol complex.

After the Senate kicks off debate on the House bill, Republicans are planning to make life as excruciating as possible.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) will force the Senate clerk to read all 500-plus pages of the Senate substitute. Senate Democratic leaders estimate that it will take four to five hours to complete that task, though Johnson believes it may take longer. Then Republicans can use up to 20 hours of debate time, and then force unlimited amendments votes if they so choose.

Schumer vowed that the Senate would stay in session this week until the bill is passed and dismissed Johnson’s effort as a delay tactic that “will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks.” But he added that Democrats would welcome Johnson’s reading of the bill.

“We Democrats want America to hear what’s in the plan,” he said. “And if the senator from Wisconsin wants to read it, let everybody listen. Because it has overwhelming support.”

The bill’s so-called vote-a-rama now may begin on Friday, instead of on Thursday, as a result of delays on Wednesday in getting a Congressional Budget Office score for the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion bill. That’s a key step in the process, ensuring Democrats can use budget reconciliation and its simple majority requirement instead of needing 60 votes — and the support of 10 Republicans. CBO has since assured that the bill gels with the arcane budget rules guiding its passage, a Democratic aide said Thursday morning.

Johnson and other Republicans are vowing to make the vote-a-rama lengthy and uncomfortable for Democrats with what they view as tough votes. And timing is important: Enhanced unemployment benefits shut off on March 14 and Democrats say they need to pass their bill well in advance to give states time to avoid missing payments. Plus, the House will still need to approve the Senate’s changes.

Though Senate Democrats and Biden agreed to keep unemployment bonus payments at $400 per week through August, mirroring the House proposal, some Republicans or centrist Democrats could offer amendments trimming that down to $300 per week. Increasing the intrigue, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has not officially decided she’s against the bill, and Biden and Democrats would be ebullient to receive any GOP support.

Biden and Democrats also agreed to more narrowly target the next round of $1,400 stimulus payments, phasing out completely for single filers at $80,000 and joint filers at $160,000. But Democrats will have to stick together to make sure their carefully negotiated truce is not upset by GOP amendments. In the last amendment series, moderate Democrats infuriated progressives by approving an amendment barring undocumented immigrants from getting stimulus checks. House Democrats are watching closely.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden said he “would have preferred the House threshold” on checks, but that he still thought the bill was in a good place. He acknowledged that the party was still tweaking the bill as of Thursday morning.

“There are a couple of numbers that people are still going back and forth on. But I think we’re very close,” he said.

Senate Democrats are also tweaking cash for state and local aid, ensuring that small states receive more money and that every state receives at least what it got from the massive stimulus bill passed last March.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that House Democrats would like to study the compromise on unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, but said, “So far, so good.”

Some progressives seemed skeptical of the deal, but stopped short of saying it would jeopardize the near-lockstep support that Pelosi needs to get the amended Senate bill through the House in the coming days.

“I just — I don’t like that this is being narrowed,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I feel like the survival checks are the easiest, simplest, most popular, populist, proposal. But let me take a look at what it actually means in terms of numbers of people.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is also planning to offer an amendment that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, despite the Senate parliamentarian ruling that including that provision would violate Senate rules. While the amendment is expected to fail, it will put Democrats on record over whether they support the boost. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana are among those whose vote will be watched on the Sanders amendment.