Senate revamps jobless benefits, rejects minimum wage hike in stimulus debate

Democrats maneuvered frantically Friday to push President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill over the finish line in the Senate, agreeing to a last-minute change sought by moderates to keep federal unemployment benefits at their current $300-per-week level instead of raising them to $400-per-week.

At the same time, the Senate was poised to defeated an attempt by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to restore a $15 minimum wage to the bill, with Republicans voting unanimously against the provision and more than a half-dozen Democrats joining them.

The fast-moving developments came as the Senate launched into rancorous partisan debate on the overall relief measure, with Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., vowing to stay in session until they pass the massive legislation as Republicans threatened a cascade of amendments aimed at slowing if not stopping the bill.

“We need to get this done. It would be so much better if we could in a bipartisan way, but we need to get it done,” Schumer said. “We’re not going to make the same mistake we made after the last economic downturn, when Congress did too little to help the nation rebound . . . we’re not going to be timid in the face of big challenges.”

Following Schumer on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lambasted Democrats for using a partisan procedure to rush through the giant legislation after Biden campaigned on promises to unify the nation—but conceded there was little Republicans could do to stop it.

“In this supposed new era of healing leadership we’re about to watch one party ram through a partisan package on the thinnest of margins,” McConnell said. “Go figure.”

Senate Democratic leaders were still tinkering with the legislation Friday morning to lock down support from wavering moderate Democrats. One final change involved $300 weekly federal unemployment payments that Biden proposed to increase to $400-per-week and extend through August. An amendment to be offered by Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., would keep the unemployment benefits at $300-per-week but extend them through September, and also provide tax forgiveness for the benefits as a way to avert a surprise year-end tax shock facing millions of American families.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki praised the new compromise on unemployment insurance.

“The president believes it is critical to extend expanded unemployment benefits through the end of September to help Americans who are struggling,” Psaki wrote on Twitter. “The compromise amendment achieves that while helping to address the surprise tax bills that many are facing by eliminating the first $10,200 of UI benefits from taxation for 2020. Combined, this amendment would provide more relief to the unemployed than the current legislation.”

Multiple moderate Senate Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin III, W.Va.—a key swing vote—had expressed unease about increasing the weekly unemployment benefits, with Manchin expressing concerns it could keep people from rejoining the workforce at a moment when the economy is struggling to recover.

Friday’s debate kicked off after Sen. Ron Johnson, R.-Wis., forced Senate clerks to read the entire 628-bill aloud, a process that took almost 11 hours and concluded around 2:05 a.m. That came after the Senate voted 51 to 50 on party lines Thursday afternoon to open debate, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie. The partisan vote to start debate was a likely sign of the final outcome, although Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she was still examining the bill after Democrats made some last-minute changes that could help her state and others.

Even without any GOP support in the 50-50 Senate, Democrats appeared likely to hold together to pass Biden’s first major legislative initiative after making concessions to moderate Democrats. It will be one of the largest bills ever enacted in congressional history, and its passage would stand as an early success for the new president, who has insisted it is necessary to stabilize the economic recovery and ensure the nation gets vaccinated.

In addition to extending emergency federal unemployment benefits, the package would devote $400 billion to a new round of $1,400 stimulus payments; $130 billion for schools; and $350 billion for states, cities, tribal governments and U.S. territories; among other large measures, including significant public health funding for vaccine distribution and coronavirus testing.

The amendment debate promised to be hectic as well as consequential for significant portions of the relief bill. Senators will have the opportunity to offer unlimited amendments through a series of roll-call votes—a procedure known as a “vote-a-rama”—that would allow any group of 51 senators to change the structure of the bill.

Senate Republicans and some Democrats have prepared extensive lists of amendments to try to shape the bill as it speeds toward passage. Democrats have been united on the need to pass the legislation ahead of a March 14 deadline when unemployment benefits will expire for millions of Americans unless Congress acts first. After the bill passes the Senate it must go back to the House for final passage, which is expected early next week.

The first vote Friday came on Sanders’ effort to overcome a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian, who found last month that the minimum wage hike was not permissible within the rules of budget reconciliation, the procedure Democrats are using to pass the relief bill with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes normally required.

Sanders insisted in floor debate that the current $7.25 federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been raised in years, was insufficient to provide a living wage to American workers. But Republicans disagreed, and even some fellow Democrats declined to support him on a procedural vote aimed at restoring the $15 minimum wage to the bill.

Other controversies loom in the amendment process.

“Republicans have many ideas to improve the bill, many ideas, and we’re about to vote on all kinds of amendments in the hope that some of these ideas make it into the final product,” McConnell said.

Even before the late change on unemployment benefits, Biden and Democratic leaders already had agreed to some other changes aimed at addressing concerns raised by moderate Democrats, including narrowing eligibility for stimulus payments and earmarking some of the state and local funding for capital projects.

Congress passed a series of bills last year totaling some $4 trillion to fight the pandemic, including $900 billion in December, and Republicans said that was more than enough.

The debate came as the U.S. economy saw encouraging news on Friday in a jobs report showing 379,000 jobs had been added in February. Still, unemployment rate remained dramatically elevated above pre-covid levels with more than 9 million Americans remaining jobless.

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