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Narrow relief bill victory provides warning signs for broader Democratic agenda

President Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, right, delivered remarks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, after the Senate passed his $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, on Saturday.
President Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, right, delivered remarks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, after the Senate passed his $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, on Saturday.STEFANI REYNOLDS/NYT

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden and Democrats hailed the massive $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that passed the Senate this weekend as a triumph of Democratic ideals, with Biden calling the legislation “significant” and “historic.”

But the bill's successful passage - on a tissue-thin party-line vote, after more than 24 hours of Senate debate - belied the broader challenges facing Biden as he tries to navigate intraparty divisions to push through an ambitious agenda on voting rights, climate change, immigration and other issues.

The relief act's narrow slog through the 50-50 Senate revealed real disagreements between the Democratic Party's progressive and centrist wings, as well as Biden's instincts for procedure and bipartisanship. These and other disputes over the past week on issues ranging from the minimum wage to a new budget director also provided fresh warning signs for the rest of Biden's priorities, which will require a unified Democratic Party and little room for error against Republican opposition.

Even as his party appeared headed for defeat, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took to the Senate floor in the middle of the overnight debate to mock the Democratic drama.

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"Well, my goodness, that's been quite a start - quite a start - to this fast-track process," McConnell said, unable to suppress a smile. "A little tougher than they thought it was going to be, isn't it? Turned out to be a little bit tougher."

Biden and his allies, however, were exultant at the outcome, noting that the president had proposed an ambitious package to help combat the deadly coronavirus pandemic and offer Americans economic relief, and ultimately succeeded.

"The president proposed a $1.9 trillion plan and the Senate just passed a $1.9 trillion plan," said Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director. "Were there some tweaks through the process? Yes. But this is a 50-50 Senate and we were able to navigate through an incredibly impactful relief plan while maintaining the support of three-quarters of the country."

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During the debate, Senate moderates narrowed the bill's federal stimulus payments, lowering the income cap on which Americans qualify for one of the $1,400 checks. And after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the Democrats could not include a $15 minimum wage increase, an amendment Friday by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to try to add the $15 minimum wage provision back into the package fell far short of the necessary votes - with seven Democrats and one Independent voting against the wage increase.

The sizable Democratic pushback against the measure came as a blow to progressives, who had previously griped that their agenda was being thwarted by just one or two of the centrists.

Moderates also whittled down the bill's unemployment insurance benefits not once but twice - initially from the $400-a-week levels Biden wanted and again, in an effort to bring on board Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., from the compromise reached for $300-a-week unemployment benefits extended through early October. Ultimately, the Senate approved $300 weekly checks through Sept. 6.

The relief bill also offered a glimpse at how, in an evenly divided Senate, a single lawmaker - in this case, Manchin, who represents a state that Biden lost by nearly 40 points - can grind legislating to a virtual standstill. On Friday, the Senate set a record for the longest-ever roll call vote, holding open a tally on Sanders's minimum wage amendment for 11 hours and 50 minutes while Democrats, including Biden, scrambled to woo Manchin over a disagreement on the size of unemployment benefits.

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Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., a close Biden ally who voted against Sanders's minimum wage amendment, described "some new dynamics" in the current Senate majority requiring what he called "serious efforts" on issues ranging from immigration to infrastructure.

"This was a reminder that in a 50-50 Senate, if any one member changes their mind on an amendment or vote or an issue, it can change the outcome," Coons said.

Democrats are grappling with other challenges, as well. There is significant dissent within the party over whether to abolish or overhaul the filibuster, a procedural maneuver that allows the minority party to block a final vote on Senate legislation by requiring a 60-vote threshold to continue.

Liberals are increasingly pressuring Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to do away with the filibuster, arguing it hampers the administration's chance of achieving their campaign promises on issues including climate change, gun control, immigration, and voting rights. But others, including Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have said to do not support a repeal of the filibuster.

Manchin said on "Fox News Sunday" that the filibuster "defines who we are as a Senate. I will make it harder to get rid of, but it should be painful if you want to use it."

Last week, the debate took another turn when Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she would "get rid of the filibuster." Klobuchar, a centrist, was joined by two other moderates - Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., who on social media called it "undemocratic" and the "enemy of progress," and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who expressed openness to the option if bills keep flailing in the Senate.

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Adam Jentleson, the former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who supports reforming the filibuster, said Friday's stalled voting process showed how "there is essentially zero prospect for action if Democrats need 60 votes to pass legislation without reconciliation."

"On a majority basis, it's more like you can't always get what you want, but you get what you need and that's a lot better than the wasteland staring at them if they leave the filibuster in place," he said.

Another Democratic disagreement revolves around who should replace Neera Tanden, an Asian American woman, as the nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget after Tanden's nomination was withdrawn amid bipartisan opposition to her appointment. Shalanda Young, a well-respected former congressional aide who is Black, has significant support on Capitol Hill. But the White House has hesitated in naming her to the post, prompting concern and frustration among Biden allies pushing for more racial diversity in Cabinet-level posts.

Democrats and White House officials largely rejected the notion that the covid relief bill drama is anything other than a historic achievement, arguing that the process was a robust legislative success.

"I don't think any of the compromises have in any way fundamentally altered the essence of what I put in the bill in the first place," Biden said Saturday. He pointed to a tweet by Sanders, noting that the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a self-described Democratic socialist called the legislation "the most progressive bill he's ever seen pass since he's been here."

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Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff under former president Barack Obama and a close ally of the Biden administration, described the legislative scrapple-making as "the normal give and take of the process." Asked about the Republican claims that the bill highlighted Democratic infighting, he quipped, "This wouldn't even be in the top 50."

Among progressives, the reaction was mixed. Speaking on CNN Friday, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., warned that Democrats were breaking their promises, despite controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress. "And so ultimately it is a failure when we compromise ourselves out of delivering on behalf of the American people and keeping our promises," she said.

But Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who will support the legislation when the House votes Tuesday, stressed that the bill began with a progressive framework, which largely emerged in tact.

"The point is the progressives won along the way a lot too," Khanna said. "Look, Manchin and some of the moderates are winning some at the end, but you have to look at the whole game. You can't just look at the last couple of minutes."

His bigger concern, he added, is "are we going to be able to deliver the structural change that the moment demands given the institutional concerns?"

Administration officials say the answer is yes. Bedingfield said that far from a harbinger of trouble to come, the relief package provides a blueprint for how the administration plans to grapple with what she described as natural and healthy differing opinions - both between political parties and within the Democratic Party.

"If you look at how divided Washington has been over the past four years, if you look at the gridlock that seized Washington, moving forward on a package like this shows that it is possible to build a really broad coalition of support for your priorities and get them passed," Bedingfield said. "I think this bill is a really good road map for how to do that."

Some moderate House Democrats, however, are growing increasingly concerned about whether legislation that is being cobbled together quickly and passed on a partisan basis will only increase chances of their agenda stalling in the Senate.

"The challenges of passing this legislation - which only needed 51 votes - should serve as a reality check for House Democrats as we look towards the future," one Democratic member said. "We can either solely pass Democratic messaging bills that won't pass in the Senate or we can do the hard work of building support for our policy priorities and finding compromise where necessary to actually pass laws."

Republicans were eager to highlight any and all Democratic division. "How on earth do you bring a massive bill to the floor without having the votes to pass such a critical amendment?" asked Doug Andres, a spokesman for McConnell, referring to the nearly 12-hour Democratic showdown over unemployment benefits.

As the intraparty Democratic tensions burbled to the surface in the final hours before the bill's passage, Andres took to Twitter to emphasis the Republicans' favored alliterative message - that the Democrats were disarray. He described Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as "Majority Leader Schumer (D-Isarray)."

And as Friday night bled into Saturday morning, Andres tried again, changing his own Twitter name from Doug Andres to “Doug Array.”