By Kristina Peterson, Andrew Duehren and Richard Rubin
WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats were poised to pass President
Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package Saturday by the
slimmest of margins, following an intraparty standoff over
Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) brought the chamber to a standstill
for much of Friday, when he balked at a Democratic proposal to
extend federal jobless benefits until Oct. 4. After hours of
negotiations, Democrats struck a new deal to extend the current
$300 weekly benefits through Sept. 6 and make a portion of the 2020
benefits nontaxable for some households.
The final change to the Senate bill highlighted centrist
Democrats' powerful influence in the evenly divided chamber, where
a single Democratic defection would have derailed the bill. Senate
Democrats lowered the weekly payments to $300 from their $400 level
in the House bill, phased out $1,400 direct payments more quickly
for some households and stripped out a minimum-wage increase that
had passed the House last weekend.
After the relief package passes the Senate, it will head to the
House, which must approve the revised legislation before sending it
to the White House for Mr. Biden's signature. Liberal House
Democrats have said they want to see what the Senate passes before
indicating whether they will support it. But they have also
emphasized the need for the relief package and will be under
pressure not to derail Mr. Biden's first legislative push.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday night that Mr.
Biden supported the last round of Senate changes to the bill.
Democrats have been working to pass a new relief bill before
current federal unemployment benefits expire in mid-March.
The legislation will provide $300 in unemployment benefits
through Sept. 6, send $1,400 direct payments to many Americans,
direct $350 billion to state and local governments, fund vaccine
distribution, and expand the child tax credit, among other aid.
As part of the agreement reached Friday, the first $10,200 of
the 2020 unemployment benefits will be nontaxable for households
making less than $150,000.
"This is the longest extension of benefits possible tonight,"
said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), noting
that the agreement also moved the expiration date past August, when
Congress is traditionally in recess. "This is the best that can be
done for people hurting now."
Democratic leaders held open an amendment vote during the
negotiations with Mr. Manchin for nearly 12 hours, making it the
longest recorded vote in modern Senate history.
Republicans said the delay showcased the lengths to which
Democrats were going to avoid working across the aisle.
"What this proves is there are benefits to bipartisanship when
you're dealing with an issue of this magnitude," said Senate
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), pointing to the
bipartisan relief legislation passed last year. "Not a single
spectacle like today, not one."
The stall on the Senate floor revolved around Mr. Manchin's
willingness to side with Republicans in an effort to shorten the
duration of unemployment benefits, underscoring the precariousness
of the Democrats' majority.
Most Democrats in the 50-50 Senate had signed on to an effort
unveiled Friday morning by Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) to lower the
weekly federal jobless benefits to $300 a week, but extend them
through Oct. 4 instead of Aug. 29 in the House version.
The final Democratic agreement differed from Mr. Carper's
original proposal by extending the jobless benefits to Sept. 6
rather than Oct. 4, and adding an income cap to the benefits that
would be exempt from taxation.
"We have reached a compromise that enables the economy to
rebound quickly while also protecting those receiving unemployment
benefits from being hit with [an] unexpected tax bill next year,"
Mr. Manchin said in a statement Friday.
Mr. Manchin did vote for a GOP amendment from Sen. Rob Portman
of Ohio that extended the $300 weekly benefits through July 18, but
it was then superseded by the Democratic deal.
Mr. Portman said Democrats were providing benefits that aren't
needed because the economy is recovering.
"The Democratic proposal makes it even more advantageous to be
on unemployment by changing retroactively a longstanding policy
that says UI benefits are taxed as income," he said on the Senate
floor, referring to unemployment insurance.
After Democrats struck their deal on unemployment benefits, the
chamber still slogged through the marathon of amendment votes known
in the Senate as "vote-a-rama."
Senate Democrats are using a process known as reconciliation,
which allows them to pass legislation tied to the budget with a
simple majority, rather than the 60 votes most bills require. Vice
President Kamala Harris had been expected to cast the tiebreaking
vote, but her presence appeared unlikely to be needed Saturday,
since Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska) had to leave early Friday for
the funeral of his father-in-law, leaving Republicans with 49
Because the process allows the majority party to pass
legislation on their own, Senate rules carve out a place for
lawmakers in the minority to make their voices heard, by allowing
them to vote on an unlimited number of amendments. After the delay
on Friday, lawmakers plowed through amendments through the night
and Saturday, working on the legislation for more than 24-hour
Many of the amendments offered late Friday and Saturday were
designed to emphasize Republicans' criticisms of the relief bill,
including how its funding for schools is structured and its overall
price tag. Some garnered bipartisan support though, with one
amendment directing $800 million toward aid for homeless youth.
The Senate blocked an amendment from Budget Committee Chairman
Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) to increase the minimum wage to $15 an
hour. That was a plank of the bill passed by the House, but it was
stripped out of the Senate version when the chamber's
parliamentarian ruled it didn't comply with the rules. All 50
Republicans and eight Democrats opposed Mr. Sanders's
An amendment from Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.) asking Mr. Biden
to review and approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which the
president blocked in his first days in office, also came up short
in a 51-48 vote. The amendment needed 60 votes to pass under the
rules tied to the budget.
The impact of the new tax exemption on unemployment benefits
would vary by person. Some with relatively low incomes overall
wouldn't get much of a benefit, but a middle-income person could
save more than $1,000.
The move would reduce or eliminate surprise tax bills for those
who qualify. Withholding varies across states, so many people
hadn't been paying enough during the course of 2020.
The new Democratic agreement retained a measure from Mr.
Carper's amendment to extend by a year limits on how much
high-income earners can deduct certain business losses. Those
limits, created in the 2017 tax law, were suspended by last year's
coronavirus relief package, to the frustration of progressive
Democrats. They are now in effect but are scheduled to expire in
2025 like other pieces of the 2017 law. The Democratic plan would
generate revenue by extending the provision through 2026.
Write to Andrew Duehren at email@example.com and Richard
Rubin at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 06, 2021 12:17 ET (17:17 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.