Senate takes up COVID-19 relief package as GOP aims to block passage

The Senate began voting on amendments Friday.

The Senate began voting on amendments to the COVID-19 relief bill on Friday.

Senate Democrats have agreed to an extension in jobless benefits through September at a reduced amount of $300 a week in the COVID-19 relief bill, according to two Democratic aides. The House bill originally included weekly benefits of $400 through August.

The agreement also "provides tax relief to workers who received unemployment insurance compensation by making the first $10,200 of benefits non-taxable for the first time to prevent surprise bills for unemployed at end of year," according to a Democratic aide.

The Senate began its consideration of the coronavirus relief bill Thursday, but before voting on President Joe Biden's signature legislation, Republicans who claim the bill is massive and won't address issues related to the pandemic set the stage for a lengthy series of procedural measures designed to slow down momentum.

Democrats are projecting that they will hold together and vote unanimously in favor of the aid after Biden made concessions to appease the moderates. If they stick together, there's little the GOP can do to prevent it from passing in the evenly divided Senate.

But that won't stop Republicans from fighting to make passage an arduous affair.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.,extended the length of debate by several hours by requiring the Senate clerk to read the nearly 600-page bill aloud in full.

Republicans also plan to offer a laundry list of amendments to make good on Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's promise that Republicans will be "fighting in every way we can" to block the bill.

The last marathon-voting session on a bill lasted about 15 hours. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., called that a "warm-up session" for what's to come on the vote for final passage.

"There's going to be a lot of amendments," Braun said. "You're going to have a lot of amendments you're going to have a lot of stuff that's going to be struck through an amendment, but whether we get anywhere on that I'm not sure."

The bill cleared the House without a single Republican backer and McConnell said he is hopeful that Senate Republicans will also "unanimously oppose" the bill. It's not yet clear whether he'll have his way.

Moderate Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski hasn't yet said how she intends to vote on the bill, and in recent days, Biden has made concessions to appease moderates within the Democratic caucus -- that could also earn favor with moderate Republicans.

The Senate version of the bill does not include language that would have required a raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, for example. The proposal, which was unpopular with moderate Democrats Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., was ruled out of bounds for a budget bill by the Senate parliamentarian.

Still, Budget Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., appeared on the Senate floor in advance of Friday's vote-a-rama to introduce his amendment, which he'll offer later in the day, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

"Let’s be clear. This is the richest country in the history of the world," Sanders said. "We can no longer tolerate millions of our workers being unable to feed their families because they are working for starvation wages."

Biden and Senate Democrats cut a deal Wednesday to lower the income threshold for who will receive partial direct payments. Individuals making under $75,000 and couples making under $150,000 will still receive a full direct payment, but partial payments will cap off at $80,000 and $160,000 respectively.

Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., estimated this would decrease the cost of direct checks by $12 billion.

The Senate substitute to the House reconciliation bill is estimated by Congressional Budget Office to be $1.874 trillion.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden had been listening closely to the suggestions of Manchin and other moderates on the bill -- and with the new changes -- Manchin seemed unlikely to vote against the package.

"I just think that the bill has, really, enough good stuff -- really does have enough good stuff -- that we should be able to make this work -- we really should," Manchin said. "I'm very pleased with the discussions and dialogues and some changes that have been agreed upon."

Democrats on Thursday said they were confident they could move through the procedural hoops and pass the legislation.

"We don't have time for the politics that are going on right now," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Thursday. "We're going to just going to keep drinking coffee and getting this thing done."

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