The U.S. Senate narrowly passed the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill Saturday morning in a 50-49 vote, clearing the most significant remaining hurdle before the bill — President Joe Biden’s first major legislative initiative — can be sent to the president for his signature.
While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was forced to scale back the unemployment insurance at the last minute, Democrats ultimately managed to keep their slim majority united enough to pass it. Every Republican present voted against it.
The legislation, dubbed the American Rescue Plan, underwent some changes — both big and small — and as such, will need to be voted on again by the House before it can be sent to the president for signature. Among the bigger changes, reports The New York Times, the Senate version has removed the $15 per hour federal minimum wage provision, made the stimulus checks phase-out faster, and reduced the unemployment insurance booster checks from $400 per week to $300 per week. ($10,200 in unemployment benefits is now also tax deductible.)
Under the new direct checks rules, individuals earning less than $75,000 per year will receive a $1,400 direct check, as will couples earning less than $150,000 per year. But under the expedited phase-out rules, individuals earning more than $80,000 will no longer qualify for partial checks, and neither will couples earning more than $160,000.
USA Today reports that two infrastructure provisions, one for a subway project in the Bay area of Northern California and another for a bridge in New York, were also removed from the Senate bill. The new bill also stops aide money that is provided to state and local governments from getting used to create a pension fund, to fund tax cuts, or to fund new costs beyond 2024.
Several amendments were successfully added to the stimulus bill during the vote-a-rama, a period of time when senators can vote to add amendments to a reconciliation bill, reports Roll Call. Although more than 600 amendments were filed in total, far fewer made it to debate on the Senate floor, and even fewer of them were actually passed.
One bipartisan amendment that passed was filed by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). The amendment transferred less than a percent of school funding to cover programs for homeless children instead, reports Roll Call. Another approved amendment, filed by Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), mandates that elementary schools and secondary schools release a reopening plan within 30 days of receiving COVID-19 related funding. And another approved amendment, filed by Schumer, increased the pool of funding for restaurant grants to cover payroll and other expenses from $25 billion to $28.6 billion.
Despite these changes and others, the bulk of the bill remains the same, and the House is expected to pass it again next week. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said in a statement: “On Tuesday, the House will consider the Senate’s amended version of the American Rescue Plan, so that we can send this bill to President Biden for his signature early next week. Democrats are delivering on our promise to take action to defeat this virus and provide the assistance the American people need until our economy can reopen safely and fully.”
The stimulus bill comes amidst positive signs for the trajectory of the country, including the release of a strong jobs report, the presence of a ramped-up vaccination campaign, and the FDA authorization of a new, one-shot COVID-19 vaccine.
The Department of Labor’s jobs report for February showed that U.S. employers added 379,000 jobs in February, and most of the job gains occurred in the hospitality and leisure industry, a category that includes restaurants.
During a press conference on Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether the Biden administration was reconsidering the size of the stimulus package in light of recent positive developments. Psaki responded: “Well, at the same time, four million Americans have been unemployed for more than six months. The rate of unemployment among African Americans is 9.9% — 8.5% among Hispanics. Without this package, 9.5 million people are out of work. At this rate, we would not hit the pre-pandemic unemployment rate for two years. If that’s satisfying to Republicans in Congress, then certainly they can speak for themselves. But the president believes — and economists believe and experts believe — that in order to get this pandemic under control, in order to get people back to work, we need an infusion of this [sized] package because the twin crises we’re facing, that’s what would meet the moment.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) voiced disagreement with the bill in a statement on Saturday, when he accused the Senate of having “never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard or less rigorous way.”
Voters handed Senate Democrats the slimmest possible majority, shrunk the House Democrats’ majority, and picked a president who promised unity and bipartisanship. Democrats have responded by ramming through what they call “the most progressive domestic legislation in a generation” on razor-thin and purely partisan majorities in both chambers.
The right path was obvious. We followed it five times last year. In 2020 we passed five historic pandemic rescue packages totaling $4 trillion. Not one of them got fewer than 90 votes in the Senate or about 80% of the House. Last March, I convened the bipartisan task forces that wrote the historic CARES Act. Republicans and Democrats worked shoulder to shoulder.
That was the road to real pandemic relief. But this time, Democrats wanted something else. They explained their intent very clearly: to exploit this crisis as “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”
That’s how we ended up with this massive bill that only directs 1% to vaccinations, ignores the science on reopening schools, and is stuffed with non-COVID-related spending that even top liberal economists say is wrong for this recovery. That’s why the only bipartisan feature of this bill is the group of Senators and Representatives who voted against it.
Democrats inherited a tide that is already turning. 2021 was already poised to be our comeback year, thanks to the American people’s resilience and the bipartisan foundation we’d laid.
We could have worked together to speed up victory. But Democrats decided their top priority wasn’t pandemic relief. It was their Washington wish-list. It was jamming through unrelated policy changes they couldn’t pass honestly.
This article has been corrected to note that state and local aide cannot be used to create a pension fund.