WASHINGTON: Senate leaders and moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin struck a deal on emergency unemployment benefits, breaking a deadlock that had blocked the party’s $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide Friday night, seemed to pave the way for the Senate to begin a decisive, marathon series of votes and, ultimately, approval of sweeping legislation.
The comprehensive bill, President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority, is aimed at tackling the deadly pandemic and bringing the laddered economy back to health. It would provide direct payments of up to $ 1,400 to most Americans and money for COVID-19 vaccines and tests, aid to state and local governments, aid to schools and industry air travel and health insurance subsidies.
Shortly before midnight, the Senate began to consider a variety of amendments at lightning speed. The votes were mostly on Republican proposals that were virtually certain to fail, but designed to force Democrats to cast politically awkward votes. It was not known how long the “vote-a-rama” weekend would last.
More importantly, the unemployment benefit agreement suggested it was only a matter of time before the Senate passed the bill. That would send him back to the House, which was to give him final Congressional approval and send him to Biden for his signature.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden supported the compromise on unemployment benefits.
Friday’s long standoff underscored the headaches party leaders will face over the next two years – and tensions between progressives and centrists – as they attempt to push their agenda in Congress with their slim majorities.
Manchin is arguably the most conservative Democrat in the chamber and a 50-50 Senate kingmaker. But the party cannot bow too much to the center to win Manchin’s vote without endangering progressive support in the House, where it has only a 10-vote advantage.
Helping unemployed Americans is a top priority for Democrats. But it’s also an issue that drives a wedge between progressives seeking to help jobless voters deal with the sluggish economy and Manchin and other moderates who wanted to cut some of the costs of the bill. .
Biden noted that Friday’s jobs report showed employers added 379,000 workers – a surprisingly strong performance. That’s still small compared to 10 million fewer jobs since the pandemic hit a year ago.
“Without a bailout, these gains will slow down,” Biden said. “We cannot afford one step forward and two steps back. We must defeat the virus, provide essential relief and build an inclusive recovery. “
The comprehensive bill faces a solid wall of opposition from the GOP, and Republicans have used the unemployment standoff to accuse Biden of refusing to seek a compromise with them.
“You can pick up the phone and end this right now,” Senator Lindsey Graham, RS.C., said of Biden.
But in an encouraging sign for Biden, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 70% of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a remarkable 44% of Republicans.
The House approved a relief bill last weekend that included weekly unemployment benefits of $ 400 – in addition to regular state payments – until August. Manchin hoped to reduce those costs, saying the level of payment would discourage people from returning to work, a rationale that most Democrats and many economists reject.
At the start of the day, Democrats claimed they had reached a compromise between moderate parties and progressives extending emergency unemployment benefits to $ 300 per week until early October.
This plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, also included tax cuts on some unemployment benefits. Without it, many brutally fired Americans would face unexpected tax bills.
But by noon, lawmakers said Manchin was ready to back a less generous Republican version. This led to hours of talks involving White House aides, the main Senate Democrats and Manchin as the party struggled to find a way to save its unemployment aid program.
The compromise announced Friday night would provide $ 300 per week, with the last check paid on September 6, and include the benefit tax break.
During the “vote-a-rama,” the Senate narrowly passed an amendment from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would have extended UI benefits by $ 300 until July 18. But Portman’s victory was short-lived and the proposal was overturned when the chamber subsequently passed the unemployment insurance proposal developed by Democrats.
Before the unemployment benefit drama began, senators voted 58-42 to eliminate a top progressive priority, a gradual increase in the current minimum hourly wage from $ 7.25 to $ 15 over five years.
Eight Democrats voted against the proposal, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont and other progressives vowing to continue the effort in the coming months will face an uphill battle.
That vote began shortly after 11 a.m. EST and was not officially closed until almost 12 hours later, as Senate work came to a halt amid negotiations over unemployment benefits.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Democrats, calling their one-day effort to craft the unemployment amendment a “spectacle.”
“What this proves is that there are benefits to being bipartisan when dealing with an issue of this magnitude,” McConnell said.
Republicans have criticized the Comprehensive Relief Bill as a liberal spending holiday that ignores rising immunizations and signs of a choppy economy suggest the twin crises are abating.
“Democrats inherited a wind that was already turning. McConnell said.
Democrats reject this, citing job losses and many still struggling to buy food and pay rent.
“If you just look at a lot of it, you say, ‘Oh, everything is getting a little better,’” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y. “It’s not for the lower half of America. It’s not.”
Friday’s deadlock on unemployment benefits was not the first delay in the relief plan. On Thursday, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, forced chamber clerks to read aloud the entire 628-page relief bill, a grueling task that took 10 hours and 44 minutes for members of the staff and ended shortly after 2 a.m.
Democrats made a host of other late changes to the bill designed to gain support. They ranged from extra money for food programs and federal subsidies for health care for workers who lose their jobs to funds for rural health care and language ensuring minimum amounts of money for small states. .
In another late case that has satisfied moderates, Biden and Senate Democrats agreed on Wednesday to make certain high earners ineligible for direct checks to individuals.