Senate begins “vote-a-rama” for COVID relief bill

Washington — The Senate has begun the grueling process of voting on a series of amendments to President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Friday morning, but the so-called “vote-a-rama” was quickly stalled by disagreements within the Democratic caucus over an unemployment insurance benefit.

The “vote-a-rama” began with a failed vote on an amendment proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders that  would have raised the federal minimum wage. But the vote stayed open even after all senators had voted, stalling the “vote-a-rama” by preventing the next amendment from being considered.

Progressives and moderates reached a deal Friday morning on an amendment to lower the additional unemployment benefits from $400 per week to $300 per week, in exchange for extending the benefits through the end of September instead of mid-August. The amendment would also make the first $10,200 of UI benefits non-taxable and extend tax rules regarding excess business loss limitations to 2026.

The amendment offered by Senator Tom Carper means that states, who are currently providing $300 per week in benefits, would not have to change their systems. It also ensures that the benefits will not expire in August, when Congress is in recess.

However, it’s uncertain whether Democratic Senator Joe Manchin will support this deal. He appears to favor an amendment offered by GOP Senator Rob Portman that would cut the benefit to $300, but terminate the benefit in July. Manchin’s fellow Democrats held several discussions with him on Friday afternoon, in an attempt to convince him support Carper’s amendment instead.

“I think they’re trying to wear down Joe Manchin, who is intent on making sure we don’t spend more than we have to,” GOP Senator Mitt Romney told reporters on Friday afternoon. “If they need Joe, then give him what he needs. And they say, maybe at that point Speaker Pelosi won’t take up the bill. Well, baloney to that. Of course she’ll take up the bill.”

Senator John Thune, the minority whip, told reporters that the delay was because Democrats “don’t want to give Republicans a bipartisan win” on Portman’s amendment.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin suggested that the inability to make a deal may mean renegotiating the provision.

“If it gets to a certain level, it may require renegotiating with the House and the White House,” Cardin said, noting that the current unemployment benefit offering $300 per week will expire on March 14. “The clock’s ticking. So timing is pretty important.”

The deliberating is a bad omen for newly minted Senate Majority Chuck Schumer, as the “vote-a-rama” is test of his ability to keep his caucus in line.

“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 in a speech on the Senate floor Friday. “We are going to power through and finish this bill however long it takes. The American people are counting on us and our nation depends on it.”

The Senate convened on Friday morning with two hours of debate, followed by a vote on Sanders’ amendment, which would have raised the untipped minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, and the tipped minimum wage to $14.75 over seven years. The Senate parliamentarian ruled last week that the Senate could not include a provision raising the minimum wage to $15 under budget reconciliation rules, so GOP Senator Lindsey Graham raised a point of order challenging the amendment.

Manchin as well as Democratic Senators Jon Tester, Jeanne Shaheen, Kyrsten Sinema, Chris Coons, Tom Carper and Maggie Hassan joined Republicans in voting against allowing the provision to be included. Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, also voted against waiving the point of order. Manchin and Sinema in particular had previously expressed their opposition to raising the minimum wage to $15.

Although budget reconciliation rules allow for up to 20 hours of debate ahead of the “vote-a-rama,” Republicans and Democrats only used two. After GOP Senator Ron Johnson forced the Senate clerk to read the entire bill aloud, a process which took almost 11 hours, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen asked shortly after 2 a.m. for debate to be limited to three hours when the Senate reconvened. As there was no objection from Republicans, the agreement was made and the Senate gaveled out.

Congress is using the budget reconciliation process to pass the bill, which limits time for debate and allows legislation to pass with a simple majority, a workaround that avoids the 60-vote threshold that most bills require to advance in the Senate. If every Democrat supports the final bill, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tie-breaking vote, it would pass without any Republican support.

But Republicans are critical of the size of the bill and frustrated that Democrats are using the reconciliation process, arguing that they are taking a partisan route rather than working across the aisle. Democrats reply that they don’t need to waste time negotiating with Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold and pass a smaller package.

In retaliation, Republican senators aim to make the debate and amendment process politically painful for Democrats. The most excruciating part of the process is the “vote-a-rama,” wherein senators will vote on dozens of amendments in quick succession. “Vote-a-ramas” typically take several hours, often ending early in the morning.

Republicans could also again offer an amendment to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving stimulus checks. During the “vote-a-rama” last month on the budget resolution to set up the reconciliation process, eight Democrats joined all Republicans in voting for the amendment, infuriating progressives.

Amendments require support from a simple majority to be added to the bill, and most amendments proposed by Republicans are expected to fail. It’s also unclear how long Republicans will be willing to propose amendments that are unlikely to succeed before the final vote.

“At some point people are going to say, ‘I’m tired and I’m getting out of here,’ which is pretty powerful when you’re talking about a 50-50 Senate,” Republican Senator John Cornyn told reporters when asked what the timeline for the “vote-a-rama” would be.

The legislation is broadly popular, with recent polling showing that a majority of Americans support it, particularly the provision that provides $1,400 in direct checks to earners making under $75,000. Senate Democrats reached a deal to limit the eligibility for who receives direct checks earlier this week.

The House passed a version of the bill last week, but the measure considered by the Senate will be different. Some recently added measures, according to a Senate Democratic aide, include $510 million for FEMA and $750 million for states and communities impacted by job and revenue loss in the tourism, travel and outdoor recreation sectors. Another provision sets aside funding for education, including $1.25 billion for evidence-based summer enrichment, $1.25 billion for after school programs and $3 billion for education technology. It would also make COVID-19 student loan relief tax-free.

A vote on the motion to proceed to debate on the bill succeeded in a party-line vote on Thursday afternoon, with Harris breaking the 50-50 tie. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who had said she is undecided about whether she will vote for final passage, voted against moving forward with debate.

Jack Turman contributed reporting.

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