In a virtual meeting this week, President Biden urged Senate Democrats to calibrate their thinking on the COVID relief package headed their way. Biden underscored the importance of passing the bill and made clear to the senators the reality of accepting provisions they may not favor for their razor-thin margin to prevail.
The president framed the discussion by highlighting the expectations of Americans economically devastated by the widespread business closures, job losses, social impacts of the pandemic, and a year of lockdowns. Some of the line items discussed during the Senate Democratic Caucus lunchtime meeting included how jobless benefits are to be structured.
Some lawmakers debated whether those benefits should be scaled back from the $400 amount passed in the House bill to $300, and the issue is still unresolved. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-VA) is pushing for the latter amount, while his colleague, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DL), says he won’t vote for an amount less than the former.
Biden’s petition to Senate Democrats comes approximately six weeks after his inauguration, amid loud misgivings from many about the excess jobs lost when he ended construction of the Keystone pipeline and the Wall. The president is under considerable duress to get a package passed that assures Americans at a loss because of his executive orders that they will not be forgotten. And with a 50-50 partisan split in the Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris casting the swing vote in case of a tie, there is little room for a misstep.
The staggeringly costly 1.9 trillion COVID relief package passed the House on Saturday, and the pressure is now on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to will it through the Senate. The package includes funding for schools, direct checks to Americans, aid to small businesses, and money for vaccine distribution. It may be taken up for a vote as early as this week.
Senator Jon Tester of Montana characterized Biden as mainly present at the virtual meeting to listen to ideas, amendments, and changes suggested by Senate Democrats, but implied that only modest changes would ultimately be made and that reducing the $1.9 trillion price tag was a non-starter for now. In a recent press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated:
(The President’s) “focus this week and the coming weeks until it’s passed is on the American Rescue Plan. We’re going to be evaluating day by day what the needs are. We’ve reserved time in his schedule to ensure that he can be engaged, roll up his sleeves, and be personally involved in making phone calls, having more Zoom meetings, potentially having people in the Oval Office to make sure we can get across the finish line. He will be very involved personally.”
For his part, Schumer said he expected “late nights” and “hardy debate” on the relief package and possible amendments to it. The reason for Schumer’s expectation that Senate Democrats will burn the midnight oil trying to craft a stimulus that can be ratified in their chamber is the overarching issue that the relief bill is being considered under budget reconciliation rules that allow senators to force votes on as many amendments as they see fit. This means that with the backing of 49 Republican senators, just two Democrats defecting from their party could see the bill amended.
Democrats are further motivated by a rapidly closing window before jobless benefits are set to expire for Americans on March 14. The black eye the Democrats would sustain from failing to pass the bill before that date is no doubt focusing their efforts. But Republicans have been more or less unified in opposition to the bill, which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) described as a “bonanza of partisan spending they’re calling a pandemic relief package.”
One thing is certain: The provision to increase the minimum wage that passed in the House last weekend will be excised from the Senate bill based on a ruling by the Senate Parliamentarian. That issue will have to be taken up separately and may be Senate Republicans’ hill to die on. Mitt Romney (R-UT) proposed a $10 minimum wage to counter the $15 proposal in the House. And with conservative accusations of excessive pork and a yawning $5 divide between the Senate majority and minority on the minimum wage, there is much ado in Washington this week about relief for Americans suffering from a year of economic privation.
Read more from author Pennel Bird.
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