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Senate votes to open debate on Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill

Vice President Kamala Harris broke the tie on Thursday's procedural vote, allowing President Biden's relief bill to be debated.
Vice President Kamala Harris broke the tie on Thursday's procedural vote, allowing President Biden's relief bill to be debated.Ting Shen/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday to open debate on President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, as Democrats moved forward with no GOP support after failing to win over a single Republican senator on the new president’s first major legislative initiative.

The vote was 51 to 50, with Vice President Harris breaking the 50-to-50 tie. GOP unity against the procedural motion suggested that no Republican will vote in favor of the legislation on final passage, which will come after hours of debate and an amendment free-for-all that could drag into the weekend.

Once it passes the Senate, the legislation will have to go back to the House for final approval before being sent to Biden for his signature. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has guaranteed the House will pass the Senate’s version of the bill, despite some changes that liberals dislike, including narrowing eligibility for $1,400 relief checks and excluding a plan for a $15 minimum wage.

Democrats had been holding out hope that Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, would vote with them, but she did not, despite a handful of last-minute changes that could benefit her state. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell had made clear that he wanted Republican senators to stay unified against the legislation, and they did.

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However, Murkowski told reporters she was still examining the final version of the legislation, which was unveiled just moments before Thursday’s vote and could change further during the amendment process.

“I’m going to look and see what’s in it. We already know some of the things that have been pointed out that are clearly not COVID-related,” Murkowski said. “But I’m looking at some of the things that will provide a level of relief for a state like Alaska.”

The vote Thursday came after the last-minute negotiations appeared to succeed in locking down support from wavering moderate Democrats, even if no Republicans were immediately convinced.

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In addition to limiting the relief checks, the legislation includes new limits on a $350 billion pot of state and local aid, setting aside $10 billion of it for infrastructure needs that could include broadband, and including a rule barring cities and states from using any new federal money to pay down pension costs or offset new attempts to cut taxes.

It also includes new provisions to ensure that smaller-population states, like Alaska, would receive adequate funding, and directs increased funding to tourism and outdoor-recreation industries.

As soon as the Senate voted to proceed to the bill, Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, insisted on a full reading of S.B. 628, which commenced immediately and could take hours. Senators normally waive a full reading, but Johnson has described this as part of his plan to resist the legislation. He also intends to try to force votes on multiple amendments.

Senate majority leader Charles Schumer said he welcomed Johnson’s move to have the bill read aloud so Americans could hear the contents of a measure that has polled well with the public. And he vowed the Senate would stay at work until passing the legislation.

“No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week,” Schumer said. “It is time to tell the American people that help is on the way.”

The Senate chamber quickly emptied out as clerks began to take turns reading the lengthy and highly technical bill, though Johnson remained at his desk.

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“Good thing we have time during a national emergency to do this,” Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, loudly remarked before exiting the chamber.

In addition to stimulus checks and state and local funding, the legislation includes $130 billion for schools and some $160 billion for vaccines, testing, and other assistance for the health-care system, as well as rental assistance, an enhanced child tax credit, and an increase and extension of emergency federal unemployment benefits that would otherwise expire March 14.

Democrats and the Biden administration have vowed to finalize the legislation ahead of that March 14 deadline. Biden's plan would increase the current $300 weekly federal unemployment benefit to $400, and extend it through August.

Republicans railed against the legislation, saying it was replete with excess spending unrelated to the coronavirus and unnecessary because Congress already devoted some $4 trillion last year to fighting the pandemic.

“Calling this a coronavirus bill is like calling Harvey Weinstein a feminist,” Senator John Neely Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said on the Senate floor.

Before the Senate can vote on final passage of the bill, there will be an open amendment process called a “vote-a-rama.” with amendments expected from all sides. Johnson said he was trying to ensure as many amendments as possible were voted on, dragging out the process as long as possible.

Democrats are pushing the legislation through the Senate under a process called “budget reconciliation” that allows it to pass with a simple majority vote, rather than the 60 normally required. That means no GOP votes are needed, but it also limits what can be included in the bill, excluding provisions that don’t have a certain impact on the federal budget.

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