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Senate Democrats clear hurdle on $1.9 trillion COVID bill

Grace Segers
·4 min read
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Washington — The Senate on Tuesday cleared a procedural hurdle on the road to passing President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal, a signal that congressional Democrats will continue to move forward with a vote to provide more economic assistance whether or not Republicans come to the negotiating table.

"We cannot, cannot afford to dither, delay or dilute. We need a big, bold package along the lines of what President Biden has proposed, the American Relief Plan. We hope that our Republican colleagues will join us in offering amendments," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech ahead of the vote on Tuesday.

A motion to proceed to debate over the budget resolution that serves as the vehicle for the aid package passed by a 50 to 49 vote along party lines in the Senate on Tuesday afternoon.

Democrats are eschewing the traditional method of passing legislation in the Senate, which requires 60 votes to end debate on most legislation, in favor of an expedited process known as budget reconciliation that allows legislation to pass with a simple majority of 51 votes. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi filed a joint budget resolution on Monday, kickstarting the reconciliation process.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a news conference in the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, February 2, 2021. / Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a news conference in the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, February 2, 2021. / Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

There will be up to 50 hours of debate over the resolution, followed by a series of votes on amendments known as a "vote-a-rama." Schumer said in an earlier speech on the Senate floor that "there will be a bipartisan open amendment process on the budget resolution this week." Any senator may file an amendment during the "vote-a-rama," but it must be budgetary in nature.

"We welcome your ideas, your input, your revisions. We welcome cooperation. There is nothing about the process of a budget resolution or reconciliation, for that matter, that forecloses the possibility of bipartisanship," Schumer said. Despite this overture by Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that Democrats had chosen a "partisan path" by proceeding with the budget resolution.

Once the House and Senate pass the budget resolution, committees get to work on drafting the reconciliation language. The Senate Budget Committee will examine the language of the bill to make sure it complies with the so-called "Byrd Rule," which limits what can be in reconciliation legislation and bars material considered "extraneous."

Debate on the reconciliation bill in the Senate will be limited to 20 hours, followed by another "vote-a-rama" in which senators can offer amendments and raise a point of order challenging provisions which they consider to be extraneous.

However, the passage of the bill will be stalled by former President Trump's impeachment trial, which begins next week. According to Senate rules, the chamber may not consider any other issues while it is conducting a trial, meaning that the Senate will likely not be able to vote on a reconciliation bill until later this month or early March.

The vote to begin debate on the budget resolution comes after Mr. Biden met with nine Republicans on Monday to discuss their far smaller COVID relief proposal. The group of Republicans, which does not include any members of party leadership, have proposed a $600 billion bill that is far more limited in scope. The GOP proposal does not include money for state and local governments, which has been a sticking point in past negotiations on relief measures.

Republican senators met with Mr. Biden at the White House for over two hours on Monday. There was no agreement, but Senator Susan Collins said after the meeting that conversations would continue at the staff level.

"We're very appreciative, as his first official meeting in the Oval Office, that the president chose to spend so much time with us in a frank and very useful discussion," Collins said.

Schumer told reporters later on Tuesday that he believed President Biden is "totally on board with using reconciliation."

"That is what President Biden wants us to do, and that is what we're doing," Schumer said.

The president with Democratic senators Tuesday during their caucus luncheon to discuss the measure. A Democratic senator who was on the call told CBS News that Mr. Biden said he "welcomed the conversation" with Senate Republicans last night, but that he "won't forget" the middle class.

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