A fiery speech and last-ditch effort by Bernie Sanders to secure a place for a federal minimum wage hike in the $1.9tn coronavirus relief package appeared as good as doomed on Friday, following a day that saw the flagship legislation hit grinding delays in the Senate.
Senate leaders and moderate Democratic senator Joe Manchin struck a deal late on Friday over emergency jobless benefits, breaking a nine-hour logjam.
The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide, cleared the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes and, eventually, approval of the sweeping legislation.
The Senate next faced votes on a pile of amendments, mostly on Republican proposals that were virtually certain to fail. More significantly, the jobless benefits agreement suggested it was just a matter of time until the Senate passes the bill. That would send it back to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval before whisking it to Biden for his signature.
Shortly before midnight, the Senate began to take up the amendments in rapid-fire fashion. Republicans mainly aimed to force Democrats into politically awkward votes. It was unclear how long the “vote-a-rama” would last.
By daybreak on Saturday, senators had worked through about a dozen amendments, including one from Senator Susan Collins of Maine to swap in Republican centrists’ $650bn alternative proposal, which Biden panned as inadequate. That and other amendments failed, including one from Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, on the Keystone XL pipeline.
One proposal that did pass, from Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, would require schools, within 30 days of receiving money from the bill, to develop publicly available plans for in-person instruction. It appeared designed to fend off Republican criticisms that Biden’s package does not do enough to swiftly reopen schools.
Progress had slowed to a crawl on Friday afternoon. But the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said the chamber would finish its work.
“The Senate is going to take a lot of votes,” Schumer said. “But 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.”
Earlier on Friday, Sanders implored Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour within this piece of legislation, calling it “disgraceful” that lawmakers have allowed tens of millions to live on “starvation wages”.
“Nobody in America can survive on $7.25 an hour, $9 an hour or $12 an hour,” he said. “We need an economy in which all of our workers earn at least a living wage … a job in the United States of America should lift you out of poverty, not keep you in it.”
Last week, the Senate parliamentarian determined that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was inadmissible under a special budgetary procedure Democrats are using to pass the $1.9tn relief bill on a party line vote, avoiding the 60-vote filibuster in a chamber split 50-50.
Sanders, backed by progressives in the House, has called on Democrats to “ignore” the decision. He also made a forceful case for enacting the relief bill.
“This is a bill which will answer a profound question: are we living in a democratic society where the US Congress will respond to the needs of working families rather than just the wealthy and large corporations and their lobbyists?” he said.
Debate, voting and backroom horse-trading began in earnest a day after the vice-president, Kamala Harris, broke a Senate tie to allow the chamber to take up the bill.
Following Sanders’ speech, eight Democrats joined all Republicans to vote against the minimum wage proposal, suggesting progressives vowing to continue the effort in coming months will face a difficult fight.
Though Sanders’ amendment was poised for defeat, the vote remained open as Democrats scrambled to hammer out a deal on unemployment benefits.The version of the relief bill passed by the House provides $400 weekly emergency unemployment benefits – on top of regular state payments – through August.
In a compromise with moderates revealed earlier on Friday, Senate Democrats said that would be reduced to $300 weekly but extended until early October. The plan, sponsored by Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, would also reduce taxes on unemployment benefits by making $10,200 of individuals’ benefits tax exempt. The White House said it supported the amendment.
But by midday, lawmakers said Manchin was ready to support a less generous Republican version. That led to hours of talks involving White House aides, top Senate Democrats and Manchin. The compromise announced on Friday night would provide $300 weekly, with the final check paid on 6 September, and includes the tax break on benefits.
The lengthy standoff underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years and tensions between progressives and centrists. Just one Democratic defection is needed to block legislation or stall voting if no Republicans cross the aisle.
“I feel bad for Joe Manchin. I hope the Geneva Convention applies to him,” said the No2 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, to reporters.
The overall bill, aimed at battling the killer virus and nursing the staggered economy back to health, will provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans. There is also money for Covid-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry, tax breaks for lower-earners and families with children, and subsidies for health insurance.
Despite deep political polarization and staunch Republican opposition, the legislation has garnered broad public appeal. A poll by Monmouth University found 62% of Americans approved, including more than three in 10 Republicans.
That is something Republicans hope to erode by portraying the bill as too big and representing wasteful spending for a pandemic that’s almost over. Biden and federal health experts this week, however, told states rushing to ditch mask mandates and reopen businesses completely the move was premature and they risked creating a fourth deadly surge.