Politics

Senate Democrats Get Ready to Move on Their COVID Relief Bill

Just as soon as they figure out what’s in it.

Chuck Schumer wearing a face mask
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Capitol Hill on Feb. 25. JIM WATSON/Getty Images

The House, in a mostly party-line vote Friday night, passed its version of a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill featuring $1,400 direct payments for most Americans, enhanced unemployment benefits through the summer, an expanded child tax credit, a $15 minimum wage, and additional money for vaccines, schools, bars, and restaurants.

Now it’s the Senate’s turn to finish the job.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday that the chamber would take up the package “this week.” It’s expected that means no sooner than Wednesday. The process would begin with a procedural vote and then up to 20 hours of debate, perhaps with some scattered amendment votes, followed by another “vote-a-rama” in which amendments are considered in rapid succession until exhaustion sets in. It could all be done by the end of the week, giving enough time for the House to vote again on any changes and then for President Joe Biden to sign it into law before the ultimate March 14 deadline Democratic lawmakers are working against, when the enhanced unemployment benefits expire.

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Given the tight timeline, why are they waiting until at least Wednesday and not starting right now? There are some scheduling conflicts, as Democrats want to confirm at least two more presidential nominees. They’re also still waiting on additional “rulings” from the Senate parliamentarian about whether certain items in the legislation, like COBRA subsidies and a fix for multiemployer pension plans in dire fiscal straits, are allowed under budget reconciliation rules.

But most importantly, Senate Democrats are waiting to introduce the bill because they are still finalizing what’s in it. They want to make sure they have a package that has 50 Democratic votes before they introduce it, from Bernie Sanders on the left flank to Joe Manchin on the right, and a united front to beat back Republican amendments once it hits the floor. In other words: The most important alterations to the House bill won’t, if Senate leaders have their way, take place on C-SPAN later this week. They’re happening right now, behind closed doors, or on virtual Zooms.

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We already know about one big change from the House bill. The Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth McDonough, determined last week that a minimum wage increase would run afoul of reconciliation rules. Despite some pressure from progressive groups and members of Congress to get Vice President Kamala Harris, as Senate presiding officer, to disregard the parliamentarian, that’s not going to happen. Further, Democratic leaders decided this weekend not to take up a minimum wage workaround that Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ron Wyden had been developing. It was too complex, too late, and too, well, lacking in Democratic support to throw into the mix.

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The $15 minimum wage was kept in the House’s bill even after the parliamentarian’s decision. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may not have had the votes to pass her bill without it. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told reporters on Friday that progressives kept quiet on other issues they had, like $1,400 checks instead of $2,000, because they had been able to secure inclusion of the $15 minimum wage. In the Senate, Sanders was point person for the $15 minimum wage—a rally call his two presidential campaigns helped popularize in the national discussion—and when that failed, he insisted that his workaround needed to be included in the Senate bill. Neither is in. So which changes, if anything, will progressives look for in the Senate bill to make up for the elimination of one of their top priorities?

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And what about those Democrats closer to the center? Where might they want to give the bill a haircut? One of the more controversial items in the package is its $350 billion for state, local and tribal aid, a larger sum than may be necessary now that budget forecasts have improved. Some Democrats who’ve expressed such an interest in taking another look at that figure held a virtual meeting with Biden Monday afternoon.

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The meeting “at least from my perspective, wasn’t talking about reducing” the overall cost of the bill, Montana Sen. Jon Tester told reporters afterward, but “just targeting the money that was in it.”

We could see some of that state, local and tribal money transferred to other elements of the bill, like, for example, an additional month of enhanced unemployment benefits. Democrats are also, as my colleague Jordan Weissmann has written, walking straight into a near-term political disaster as those who’ve been living off unemployment benefits come to face their 2020 tax bill on those unemployment benefits. The Democrats’ bill doesn’t address this, a Democratic aide told me, because of the cost of waiving those tax bills. If some money frees up, it’s something for them to consider.

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Democrats don’t know what Republicans will come up with once the amendment period will start. But these amendments, unlike the amendments to the budget resolution in the previous “vote-a-rama” last month, would have the force of law. Democrats have no margin for error, and leaders have to be quite careful about not letting Republicans get an amendment through that might jeopardize support from some other element of either the House or Senate.

So Democratic senators will have a couple more days to try to affect the product. But once there’s an agreement, failure is not an option. Fifty-vote majorities are often described as giving each senator in the majority a veto. It’s more like it gives each senator some negotiating power before the moment arrives when they have no choice but to get on board. In the end, who wants to be the one senator who kills the party’s overwhelmingly popular signature legislation?

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