Capitol Report: $1.9-trillion relief package is now in Senate’s hands as Democrats eye March 14 deadline

United States

Democratic efforts to push a $ 1.9-trillion package through Congress to offset the coronavirus pandemic’s economic impact switch to the Senate this week, as a key deadline looms in the middle of the month.

Fresh off a House vote in the early morning hours of Saturday, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lost only two of her 221-member caucus, Senate Democrats face a similar test of party unity in the evenly divided Senate.

“Last week, the legislation passed in the House of Representatives. This week the Senate will take up the measure,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday afternoon.

“I expect a hearty debate and some late nights, but the American people sent us here with a job to do — to help the country through this moment of extraordinary challenge, to end through action the greatest health crisis our country has faced in a century,” he said.

Schumer’s Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, again said the bill was poorly targeted and too generous.

“Whenever their long-time liberal dreams came into conflict with what Americans actually need right now, Democrats decided their ideology should win out,” he said.

Democratic leaders are focused on the March 14 expiration of several pandemic-related jobless programs as their deadline for final passage of the bill. That would require Senate passage sometime this week and final House approval next week, a tight but not unrealistic timeline.

President Joe Biden met virtually with a group of Senate Democrats and one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Sen. Angus King of Maine, to discuss the bill Monday.

One of those in that gathering, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, afterwards told reporters it was “a very good conversation” but did not elaborate further.

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The bill would provide for a third round of direct payments to households, at $ 1,400 per eligible family member; the extension of the pandemic unemployment program, including a boost to the federal add-on payment to $ 400 a week from $ 300 currently; money for state, local and tribal governments and a temporarily expanded child tax credit.

One provision that will fall out of the bill, though, will be the provision to raise the minimum wage gradually from $ 7.25 an hour to $ 15 in 2025. The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that language would not be allowable under a procedural rule governing what can be in budget reconciliation bills, which are able to pass the Senate with only 51 votes.

That ruling, made because of the so-called Byrd rule, was likely a preview of things to come in the Senate and potential disputes between House and Senate Democrats. The Byrd rule prohibits reconciliation bills from including provisions that have no budget impact or have only a “merely incidental” impact; that increase the deficit after 10 years; or that originated from congressional committees that did not have jurisdiction over the part of the law that would be changed.

Democratic liberals in the House had made boosting the minimum wage a high priority and have asked Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris — the latter in her role as presiding officer of the Senate — to support overruling the Senate parliamentarian, who decides if the provisions violate the Byrd rule, based on how the bill is written and past precedents.

“We must act now to prevent tens of millions of hardworking Americans from being underpaid any longer. The outdated and complex Byrd rule rooted in restricting progress must not be an impediment to improving people’s lives. You have the authority to deliver a raise for millions of Americans,” wrote a group of 23 House Democrats in a letter to Biden and Harris.

The White House and at least one Senate Democrat, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, have rejected trying to overrule the parliamentarian, leaving Senate Republicans to scour the bill this week for other parts that could be struck under the Byrd rule.

Because they require 60 votes to overcome, Byrd-rule challenges — which strike the offending provision from the bill — have historically been successful most of the time when wielded by the minority party in the Senate.

According to the Congressional Research Service, through 2017, 62 of 72 challenges were upheld entirely or partially on the Senate floor. Motions to waive the Byrd rule to allow questionable items to remain in a bill were successful only nine times out of 59.

Another tool for Republicans to change the bill in the Senate may be another round of vote-a-rama, a day-long marathon series of rapid-fire votes on amendments. Senators hate the process, as the amendments are only briefly explained on the floor and they fear their votes will be used in opponents’ campaigns down the line.

“You know, vote-a-ramas are unpredictable. And they’re unmanageable. And they’re godawful. So be prepared,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.

The vote-a-rama for the budget resolution that set up the stimulus bill lasted until 5:38 a.m. in early February.

U.S. stocks surged on Monday, as a rapid rise in bond yields cooled. The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +1.95% closed up 603.14 points on the day, while the S&P 500 SPX, +2.38% index rose 90.67 points and the Nasdaq Composite COMP, +3.01% climbed almost 400 points.