Senate mulls changes to $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan is facing a potential wood chipper in the Senate as lawmakers consider making changes to the mammoth bill.

The House passed the legislation on Friday, sending it to the Senate, where it could come up next week. Leadership wants to get the bill signed into law by mid-March.

But before Senate Democrats can pass the bill, they’ll need to go through an hours-long voting session known as a vote-a-rama, where any senator will be able to offer an amendment. Any changes will require the coronavirus relief package to go back to the House.

“There’s conversations about a little bit of a different approach to some of these provisions … [but] we don’t want to derail reconciliation,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), referring to the budgetary process Democrats are using to advance the legislation. “We want to do something that’s politically feasible with House cooperation.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), asked what to expect from Republicans, added, “I think people are eager to have a chance to lay down markers and to make their point.”

With action in the Senate normally tightly controlled, vote-a-ramas represent one of the few chances senators get to force votes. A vote-a-rama earlier this month on the budget resolution — which teed up the COVID-19 relief bill — attracted more than 800 amendments, with debate starting in the afternoon and lasting until after 5 a.m. 

But most of the amendments during that debate were nonbinding, making them little more than political messaging. The stakes are raised in the upcoming debate, as any successful amendments would change the bill and force it back to the lower chamber.

“I think you got a little bit of a preview, but the budget resolution isn’t law. … This will be, so I think you can expect a robust amendment process,” said Cornyn.

An eleventh-hour curveball is what the Senate ends up doing on the federal minimum wage after the parliamentarian ruled that language increasing it to $15 per hour doesn’t comply with arcane budget rules that determine what can be included in the relief bill.

The House left the $15 minimum wage language in place, even though it will be stripped out in the Senate. Democrats are scrambling to see if they can tuck language into the bill that would effectively push large corporations to implement a $15 per hour minimum wage.

The idea has been backed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and a senior Democratic aide said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) “is looking at” adding it to the coronavirus relief bill. 

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who opposed the $15 per hour minimum wage increase, haven’t yet weighed in.

Other bipartisan discussions about making additional changes to the package are ongoing.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was talking with Democrats about potential amendments, such as raising the income threshold for Americans to receive stimulus payments, with those making upward of $200,000 receiving a partial check.

Durbin, asked about the comments, added, “That’s one of the topics the bipartisan group of senators has raised from the start.”

During the budget vote-a-rama, a bipartisan group of senators filed an amendment to voice support for making sure “upper-income taxpayers are not eligible.” The amendment, which was nonbinding, ended up being adopted in a 99-1 vote.

Under the coronavirus bill, individuals who make up to $75,000 and couples who make up to $150,000 would get a $1,400 check. After that, the amount of the check is scaled down until it phases out completely for individuals earning $100,00 or married couples earning $200,000.

Many of the same senators also filed an amendment to the budget resolution that supported capping the federal unemployment payment at $300 per week. The House bill caps the payment at $400 per week.

Though six Democratic senators were co-sponsors of the amendment to the budget resolution, it’s unclear if there would be enough support to get a similar change into the coronavirus bill — a move that would spark fury from progressives in both chambers.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont), one of the co-sponsors to the budget amendment, said he is supportive of $400 per week and had not yet looked at how the House bill dealt with the stimulus checks.

Asked about the potential for bipartisan support for lowering the cap of the per-week payment, Collins noted that “there was general consensus on that at one time.”

Schumer has been urging members of the Senate Democratic caucus to suggest any potential changes to the bill so that they could be incorporated into the legislation before it passes the House. Though Democrats initially didn’t propose changes to the budget resolution, they ended up supporting dozens.

“Please continue to provide feedback and ideas to my office and the Senate committees for the bill. We have already incorporated many of your suggestions, as well as a number of bipartisan proposals, into the bill and the Senate is on track to send a robust $1.9 trillion package to the president’s desk,” Schumer wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter. 

Republicans, meanwhile, are plotting their own potential changes after scoring big wins in the budget vote-a-rama and could support amendments to water down the legislation even though all 50 GOP senators are expected to vote against the final bill.

“Thinking strategically and tactically, I guess you almost have to wonder, ‘Do you want to make it better?’ and I think you do,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) about supporting changes while opposing the overall bill. 

Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) got bipartisan support for an amendment during the budget vote-a-rama to support not giving stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants — though Democratic leadership contended that it also would have impacted family members inside the United States legally.

Young suggested that lawmakers were trying to address the issue in the House to avoid an amendment vote in the Senate but that if it wasn’t worked out, he would offer the same amendment to the coronavirus bill that previously got the support of eight Democrats.

“I presume it’s a political protection effort,” he said about efforts to address the issue in the House. “But if it furthers good public policy, I’m all for it.” 

Tags $15 minimum wage Bernie Sanders Biden COVID-19 relief package Charles Schumer coronavirus stimulus bill covid-19 relief bill Dick Durbin Elizabeth Warren Joe Manchin John Cornyn Jon Tester Kevin Cramer Ron Wyden Susan Collins Todd Young Tom Cotton

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