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DJ Senate Moves Forward With Biden's $1.9 Trillion Relief Plan

· 02/05/2021 05:54
By Andrew Duehren

WASHINGTON -- The Senate approved a budget plan for President Biden's $1.9 trillion relief package early Friday, after Republicans tried to put Democrats on the spot on the pace of school reopenings and raising the minimum wage, among other issues, during a lengthy amendment process.

Under the special procedure Democrats are using to pass the $1.9 trillion plan, lawmakers offered a host of amendments to the budget resolution, beginning votes Thursday afternoon and ending them after 5:30 a.m. Friday. Passing the budget resolution advanced the reconciliation process, which will allow Democrats to pass the $1.9 trillion relief plan with a simple majority in the Senate.

The House, which earlier passed its own budget resolution, will take up the Senate's version after its passage. Vice President Kamala Harris cast her first tie-breaking votes in the Senate to advance the resolution.

Because the budget is nonbinding and never becomes law, the amendment votes were largely symbolic, a factor that can influence how much support they receive. Early in the process, Republicans offered amendments on cutting federal funding to states that have an active investigation into underreported deaths in nursing homes and blocking aid for schools that don't reopen after teachers have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is under fire over nursing-home deaths, and several states and cities are grappling with teachers unions, a key Democratic constituency, over when to reopen schools. Both the amendment on reporting nursing-home deaths and the amendment on reopening schools failed in the Democratic-controlled chamber.

Another GOP amendment aims to prevent Congress from raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour during a pandemic; Mr. Biden's relief plan calls for gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. His proposal would also bolster federal unemployment assistance, send $1,400 direct checks to many Americans, provide funds for vaccine distribution and offer aid to schools.

The Senate approved the amendment on a voice vote after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), a leading proponent for raising the minimum wage, said Democrats want to raise it over several years.

"I will do everything that I can to make sure a $15 an hour minimum wage is included in this reconciliation bill, but there appears to be some misunderstanding," Mr. Sanders said. "It was never my intention to raise the minimum wage immediately and during the pandemic."

Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and a group of bipartisan senators offered an amendment that seeks "to ensure upper-income taxpayers are not eligible" for the $1,400 payments in Mr. Biden's plan.

Mr. Biden has said he is open to offering the payments to a smaller group of Americans.

The president is scheduled to hold an Oval Office meeting Friday morning with leading House Democrats and committee heads involved in advancing the relief package.

The marathon of amendments, known as a "vote-a-rama" in the Senate, gives lawmakers a chance to attempt to shape Mr. Biden's plan. For Republicans, it is also an opportunity to score political points by forcing Democrats to take possibly unpalatable votes. Lawmakers took votes into the night Thursday and into Friday morning. Some of the amendments weren't directly related to Mr. Biden's plan.

While the amendments were largely symbolic, several passed, in a show of what provisions have bipartisan support in the Senate. One called for creating a fund to provide aid for restaurants and dining services, while another moved to prevent tax increases on small businesses during the pandemic. The Senate voted 58-42 to prevent immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally from receiving direct payments. Senators also agreed overwhelmingly to keep the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

Many GOP lawmakers have opposed Mr. Biden's plan because of its cost and proximity to the last relief package, a $900 billion round passed in December. They have also criticized Democrats' embrace of reconciliation, a tool both parties have previously used to pass their priorities.

"Let's hope President Biden remembers the governing approach he promised and changes course. In the meantime, if we're to debate this phony, partisan budget, we will create some clarity for the American people," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Thursday. "We're going to put senators on the record."

Many amendments Republicans offered, including several related to abortion, failed.

A group of 10 Republicans floated an alternative aid plan, about a third of the size of Mr. Biden's proposal, and met with him at the White House this week. That group sent a letter to the White House Thursday, questioning the amount of education funding in his proposal and asked for additional data about Mr. Biden's plan.

Mr. Biden has said the GOP proposal is too small, and Democrats have largely rallied around the president's plan, arguing that another large relief bill will help shore up the economy and help struggling households and businesses.

"I sincerely hope our Republican colleagues approach our work today with the intention of having serious ideas considered, not using the debate over pandemic relief to sharpen ephemeral partisan talking points," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Thursday.

Once the budget resolution clears both the House and Senate, the chambers will move forward with crafting the substance of the $1.9 trillion plan.

The question of whether to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour has divided Democrats so far. At least one Democrat, Mr. Manchin, has publicly said he is opposed to doing so, and Democrats can't afford to lose a single vote in the 50-50 Senate.

Some lawmakers also question whether raising the minimum wage is possible under the reconciliation process, which limits policy provisions to measures with direct budgetary effects. Others, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), have argued that Democrats can and must raise the minimum wage through reconciliation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said during a Thursday press conference that Democrats would attempt to raise the minimum wage later if they can't do so in reconciliation.

"That's a very high priority for us. We hope we can get it in reconciliation. I'm a veteran of reconciliation bills over time and I know the, shall we say the struggle it frequently is," she said. "In any event we're very proud of the legislation. It's not the last bill that we'll pass."

The White House reiterated Thursday that raising the minimum wage is important to Mr. Biden, but that the determination on whether it could be passed through reconciliation is in the Senate's hands.

"There's obviously a process that's ongoing, the reconciliation process, that will make some determinations about what can and cannot be in the bill based on rules," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

The minimum wage is just one of the policy debates happening now among Democrats. They are also deciding who should be eligible for the $1,400 direct payments under Mr. Biden's plan, with some lawmakers pushing to drop the income cutoffs to $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for married couples, down from $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples.

A few House Democrats are also pushing for Congress to take up a narrow bill focused on funding for vaccine production and distribution as a precursor to a larger bill. The White House and top Democrats have so far rejected splitting up the bill into multiple parts.

--Alex Leary contributed to this article.

Write to Andrew Duehren at andrew.duehren@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 05, 2021 05:54 ET (10:54 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.