Dem split on jobless benefits slows relief bill in Senate

Published 8:03 pm Friday, March 5, 2021

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WASHINGTON — Democrats laid aside one battle over boosting the minimum wage but promptly descended into another internal fight Friday as the party haltingly tried moving its $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill through the Senate.

Senators seemingly killed progressives’ last-ditch effort to include a federal minimum wage hike in the relief package, which embodies President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority.

They voted 58-42 against the increase, though the vote wasn’t yet formally gaveled to a close. Eight Democrats voted against the proposal, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other progressives vowing to continue the effort in coming months will face a difficult fight.

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But even as Democrats moved past that battle, they lurched into another as a deal they thought they’d reached between progressives and moderates over unemployment benefits threatened to crumble.

Republican senators — in accounts verified by a lobbyist — said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was no longer backing a Democratic proposal for a fresh round of emergency jobless benefits. Instead Manchin, probably the Senate’s most conservative Democrat and a potential deal breaker in the 50-50 chamber, was said to prefer a less-generous GOP alternative.

The Senate’s work, including formally ending the minimum wage roll call that started in the morning, jerked to a halt as party leaders mapped how they would move ahead.

“I feel bad for Joe Manchin. I hope the Geneva Convention applies to him,” No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota told 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’s 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.

The Senate voted 51-50 Thursday to begin debating the legislation, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the pivotal tie-breaking vote. That nail-biter and a host of eleventh-hour deals Democratic leaders were cutting with rank-and-file lawmakers reflected the delicate task of moving the measure through the precariously divided 50-50 chamber. The package faces a solid wall of GOP opposition.

Senate approval, considered likely over the weekend, would give the House time to approve the legislation and whisk it to Biden for his signature.

Though the number of Democrats opposing the minimum wage plan was a surprise, its defeat was not. Solid Republican opposition had guaranteed in advance that proponents would fall well short of the 60 votes needed to win. The proposal would boost the federal minimum wage to $15 hourly by 2025, up from its current $7.25.

Democrats next turned to trying to halt the roadblock over unemployment benefits by reaching some accommodation with Manchin. His aides did not return requests for comment.

The House version of the massive relief bill provides $400 weekly emergency unemployment benefits — on top of regular state payments — through August.

But in a compromise with moderates revealed earlier Friday, Senate Democrats said that would be reduced to $300 weekly but extended until early October. The plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., would also reduce taxes on unemployment benefits.

Manchin has been a leading voice among moderates trying to rein the relief bill’s costs. But with their scanty majorities — no votes to lose in the Senate and a mere 10-vote House edge — Democrats can’t tilt too far to the center without losing progressive support.

Once Democrats solve that problem, the Senate next faces a mountain of amendments, mostly by GOP opponents, virtually all destined to fail but designed to force Democrats to take politically awkward votes.

Republicans say the overall bill is a liberal spend-fest that ignores that growing numbers of vaccinations and signs of a stirring economy suggest that the twin crises are easing.

“Our country is already set for a roaring recovery,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in part citing an unexpectedly strong report on job creation. “Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.”

Democrats reject that, citing the 10 million jobs the economy has lost during the pandemic and numerous people still struggling to buy food and pay rent.

“If you just look at a big number you say, ‘Oh, everything’s getting a little better,'” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It’s not for the lower half of America. It’s not.”

In an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70% of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44% of Republicans.

Friday’s gridlock over unemployment benefits gridlock wasn’t the first delay. On Thursday Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., forced the chamber’s clerks to read aloud the entire 628-page relief bill, an exhausting task that took staffers 10 hours and 44 minutes and ended shortly after 2 a.m. EST.

Democrats made a host of other late changes to the bill, designed to nail down support. They ranged from extra money for feeding programs and federal subsidies for health care for workers who lose jobs to funds for rural health care and language assuring minimum amounts of money for smaller states.

In another late bargain that satisfied moderates, Biden and Senate Democrats agreed Wednesday to tighten eligibility for the direct checks to individuals. The new provision completely phases out the $1,400 payments for individuals earning at least $80,000 and couples making $160,000, well lower than the original ceilings.

The alterations left House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the task of keeping her chamber’s numerous progressives on board. Liberals already suffered a blow when their No. 1 priority — a federal minimum wage increase to $15 hourly that was included in the House package — was booted from the bill in the Senate for violating the chamber’s rules and for lack of moderates’ support.