Coronavirus relief poses early test of Democratic unity

Coronavirus relief poses early test of Democratic unity
© Greg Nash

Democrats are facing big headaches as they prepare to try to craft a sweeping coronavirus bill, potentially without any GOP support.

Democrats are poised to pass a budget resolution this week that will allow them to bypass the 60-vote legislative filibuster in the Senate. It’s a crucial step, but also the easiest because it’s effectively a shell bill that only caps how much they can spend without ironing out the policy details.

They’ll now have to resolve those fights, including over changes to the minimum wage and another round of direct checks, with no room for error. If Democrats are going to pass coronavirus relief along party lines, they have a 10-seat advantage in the House and would need the vote of every member of the Senate Democratic caucus, a potentially herculean task.

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“I think we’re going to pass the budget. We have the votes for the budget. It will be a little more complicated with the bill,” said Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinIt's time for Congress to guarantee Medigap Health Insurance for vulnerable Americans with kidney disease Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos MORE (D-Md.).

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos Senate advances defense bill after delay Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Senators to take up defense bill Wednesday MORE (D-Va.) predicted there would be a “lot of negotiations” as they try to write the bill.

“The top-line seems to be let's keep it under $2 trillion, but the component parts, I mean, there’s a lot of discussion on it,” Kaine said.

The talks are expected to stretch out over the next few weeks with the House out of town until Feb. 22. Democrats are viewing a mid-March expiration of federal unemployment benefits as the unofficial deadline for passing the next coronavirus relief bill.

Democrats are using a proposal from President BidenJoe BidenDearborn office of Rep. Debbie Dingell vandalized Pfizer to apply for COVID-19 booster approval for 16- and 17-year-olds: report Coronavirus variant raises fresh concerns for economy MORE as their framework. That plan includes, among other things, direct payments of $1,400, $400 weekly unemployment benefits, more money for state and local governments and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

But there are already signs of friction.

Democrats are generally supportive of increasing the minimum wage but there are divisions on how to phase in the increase and what amount to increase it to.

Incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo This week: Congress starts year-end legislative sprint Restless progressives eye 2024 MORE (I-Vt.) touted the budget resolution as a vehicle that will “give us the tools we need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage of $15 an hour.”

But a stand-alone bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour has the support of 38 senators, well short of the 50 needed to pass a coronavirus relief bill including the proposal.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSchumer: 'Goal' is to pass Biden spending bill before Christmas The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back This week: Congress starts year-end legislative sprint MORE (D-W.Va.) warned on Tuesday that he isn’t supportive of a $15 minimum wage.

“No, I’m not. I’m supportive of basically having something that’s responsive and reasonable," Manchin said.

And Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Five Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee Dark money group spent 0M on voter turnout in 2020 MORE (D-Mont.) told reporters that while he supports increasing the minimum wage, “there has to be some conversation about how it’s done.”

Democrats are still waiting to make sure their push to include the minimum wage increase complies with arcane Senate rules that govern what can be passed through reconciliation. But even if they can, Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks 91 House Dems call on Senate to expand immigration protections in Biden spending bill Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE (D-Ill.) acknowledged there were likely to be negotiations over the wage increase.

"I want to see an increase in minimum wage. ... The exact details on how it will be implemented, the period of time, effect on tipped wages and such, I believe that's open at least to conversation,” Durbin said.

Democrats are also discussing changing the structure of stimulus checks after vowing to boost the $600 direct payments passed by Congress last year to $2,000. Previous proposals to provide the $1,400 check drew bipartisan skepticism in the Senate because it increased the amount of the checks but kept the same phase-out structure, resulting in higher-income households being newly eligible to receive a check.

“I believe everyone has said one way or another we need to be open to improving that. I'm one of them,” Durbin said about the structure of the checks, adding that the potential that a family making $300,000 could still get a payment “is hard to defend.”

Kaine, while predicting “broad” agreement among Democrats, pointed to the structuring of the checks as one area of discussion.

“Do you tailor the individual payments a little more to make sure that it's just for people who really lost,” Kaine said as an example of topics still under discussion.

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By using reconciliation, Democrats can pass their coronavirus bill without GOP support as long as every member of the Senate Democratic caucus supports the final product. Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenSchumer: 'Goal' is to pass Biden spending bill before Christmas The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back No deal in sight as Congress nears debt limit deadline MORE urged the caucus to go big during a conference call.

But Biden and Democratic leadership also say they want an end product that gets GOP support, even as they lay the groundwork for ultimately passing a bill on their own.

Biden met with GOP senators on Monday night at the White House to discuss the $1.9 trillion plan and the $618 billion framework put together by a group of 10 senators.

Biden told Republicans that he believed their offer was too small, but Democrats are also facing their own calls to make the coronavirus bill more targeted.

Manchin agreed to vote for the budget resolution but sent a warning shot that his support for the final bill wasn’t guaranteed.

“Our focus must be targeted on the COVID-19 crisis and Americans who have been most impacted by this pandemic. The President remains hopeful that we can have bipartisan support moving forward. I will only support proposals that will get us through and end the pain of this pandemic,” Manchin said in a statement.

Asked about the $15 minimum wage, Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsSenators: US allies concerned Senate won't pass annual defense bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House to vote on Biden social spending bill after McCarthy delay Can America prevent a global warming cold war? MORE (D-Del.), a close ally of Biden, also characterized the talks over the coronavirus relief package as just beginning.

“I am supporting the motion to proceed on reconciliation and look forward to working out the details of exactly what that will mean,” he said. “But I’ll remind you last night President Biden met with 10 Republicans in what is sort of the opening of their conversation. ... There’s a lot of moving parts.”