The Senate vote on the US$1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, explained

The Senate vote on the US$1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, explained
Source: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters
The bill includes many of the things Democrats had promised on the 2020 campaign trail, including US$1,400 direct checks, an extension of unemployment benefits, funding for vaccine distribution and aid to states.

In a session that had lasted a total of 27 hours by the time of its conclusion on the afternoon of Saturday, February 6, the Senate passed the third American stimulus bill in a strictly party line vote of 50-49. Officially called the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the US$1.9 trillion bill will now be sent to the House of Representatives and, if passed, onto President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

The bill includes many of the things Democrats had promised on the 2020 campaign trail, including US$1,400 direct checks, a US$300 per week extension of unemployment benefits until September, funding for vaccine distribution and state and local aid.

Democrats did, however, make some notable concessions, most notably by reducing the income threshold of those who will receive direct checks and completely dropping the US$15 minimum wage increase from the bill.

The bill has been hailed by Democrats as providing much-needed relief for Americans after the economic turmoil and death that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, which is now in its second year.

“It has been a long day, a long night, a long year. But a new day has come,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “This bill will deliver more help to more people than anything the federal government has done in decades.”

Republicans explained their opposition to the bill by saying it was too bloated and would result in overspending, arguing that it constituted a liberal wish list rather than a relief bill.

“The Senate has never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard way or through a less rigorous process,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In an effort to delay passage of the bill, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin requested that the 628-page bill be read aloud by the Senate clerks. The reading took 10 hours and 44 minutes and was not completed until after two in the morning on Friday.

The bill was passed following a grueling 27-hour session that began on Friday and ran through Saturday afternoon, making it the longest Senate vote in modern American history.

After senators returned to the Capitol building on Friday morning, the “vote-a-rama,” a process in which senators attempt to attach various amendments to the bill before its passage, began. The first amendment proposed was the US$15 minimum wage increase by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, leading to a nearly 12-hour vote in which Democrats tried to convince the moderates of the party to vote for the amendment. Ultimately, the proposal did not pass.

Other amendments were proposed throughout the vote-a-rama, including one that would have provided support for the Keystone XL pipeline, one that would have sent the bill back to the various Senate committees and a number that would have reduced spending within the bill through a number of various avenues. These amendments ultimately failed in the final party line vote.

The final version of the American Rescue Plan was whittled down from the version President Biden had originally proposed. It did not include the minimum wage increase or the expansion of unemployment insurance benefits to US$400 and it narrowed the eligibility threshold for those receiving direct payments.

The bill passed the Senate in a party line 50-49 vote, which ultimately did not require Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tiebreaking vote due as one Republican senator was absent.

Even though it differed slightly from the version he originally wanted, the bill is a major win for President Biden. It is the first major legislative win of the Biden presidency and will give the White House extra momentum as it continues its already successful vaccination effort across the country.

“This plan will get checks out the door starting this month to the American people who so desperately need the help,” Biden said from the White House after the passage of the bill in the Senate on Saturday. “It’s going to make a big difference in so many lives in this country.”

Despite the partisan turmoil in Congress, the US$1.9 trillion package is widely popular among the electorate. According to a Morning Consult/Politico poll, three out of four voters back the package, despite its price tag. That number includes 60% of Republicans, despite every Republican member of both chambers of Congress voting against it.

The polling undermines the legitimacy of Republican complaints in Congress that Biden has not adhered to the promises he made during the campaign that he would seek to work with Republicans in the spirit of compromise.

Democrats in the House of Representatives plan to pass the bill in the coming days, with the expectation that it will land on the president’s desk before March 14, when federal unemployment aid programs expire.

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