Biden coronavirus relief bill tests narrow Democratic majority

Biden coronavirus relief bill tests narrow Democratic majority
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats are facing an early stress test of their fragile majority as they try to pass a massive coronavirus bill this week.

President BidenJoe BidenSouth Africa health minister calls travel bans over new COVID variant 'unjustified' Biden attends tree lighting ceremony after day out in Nantucket Senior US diplomat visiting Southeast Asia to 'reaffirm' relations MORE and Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSchumer mourns death of 'amazing' father Feehery: The honest contrarian Biden administration to release oil from strategic reserve: reports MORE (D-N.Y.) need the support of every member in the caucus to get the bill through the 50-50 chamber and to beat back what is expected to be an hours-long marathon of GOP efforts to chip away at the bill.

Biden, during a call with Democrats on Tuesday, urged the party to remain unified, stressing the popularity of the sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus package among voters.

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“President Biden made his pitch today to our entire caucus. And he said we need to pass this bill and pass it soon,” Schumer said after the call.

Democrats are likely to face their first test of unity Wednesday, when they could take an initial vote on proceeding to the House-passed coronavirus bill.
But the real balancing act will come once a wide-ranging vote-a-rama starts. Democrats will need to fend off challenges from GOP senators who just need to win over one Democratic senator to change the bill. And the tight 50-vote margin empowers any one member of the Senate Democratic caucus to demand changes as well. 

“It means many long nights and many amendments that, frankly, don't go to the heart of the issue but are attempts to divert to some other political question,” said Senate Majority Whip 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.) about the upcoming debate.

But asked what the strategy was to prevent them, given that Republicans just need one Democrat, Durbin joked: “The masterful whip’s organization.”

Democrats have been having around-the-clock conversations about potential changes to the $1.9 trillion package, which passed the House in a mostly party-line vote early Saturday morning after two Democrats joined all Republicans in opposing the measure.

Those discussions are expected to continue into Wednesday as Democrats prepare to start moving the coronavirus bill on the Senate floor.

“There's a new invention, it's called the telephone. And people I think are going to be burning the telephone up,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Bernie Sanders' ex-spokesperson apprehensive over effectiveness of SALT deductions BBB threatens the role of parents in raising — and educating — children MORE (I-Vt.) said about the caucus discussions.

Asked about wrangling together the 50-member caucus during its first big legislative item, Durbin added: “There’s a lot of talk.”

Biden, according to senators on Tuesday’s call, didn’t dive into policy details for the relief bill, instead stressing the need for the Senate to act quickly and reiterating that the legislation is popular even though no Senate Republicans are expected to vote for it.

Schumer has been soliciting input from his caucus for weeks as he’s tried to lock in the legislation and prevent potential changes that could imperil the bill either with his caucus or back in the House.

“Every member of our caucus, I believe, has had input into the bill we will put on the floor,” Schumer said, predicting that he would have the votes needed to ultimately pass the legislation.

But Democrats are still haggling over key provisions. Anything the Senate passes will need to bounce back to the House, where progressives are mulling whether to support the legislation after a setback over including the minimum wage.

"The fight for $15 is one that many of us have been involved in for a few years. And just because this may not survive the Senate right now doesn't mean that that fight is anywhere near over. So we will continue to use whatever legislative options are available to us,” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Bipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise The GOP's post-1/6 playbook is clear — and it's dangerous MORE (D-Calif.) told reporters.

But progressives aren’t willing to go quietly on the minimum wage, an issue Biden campaigned on last year.

Sanders is vowing to force a vote on the Senate floor to keep the $15 minimum wage provision in the bill, effectively daring some of his more moderate colleagues to vote it down.

“I feel it is absolutely one of my highest priorities, is that we pass as soon as we can, a $15 minimum wage. You cannot have half of our people living paycheck to paycheck, and millions working for starvation wages. We have to do it, and we are going to do it, period,” Sanders told reporters.

Democratic senators acknowledge that the minimum wage hike is out of the bill even as progressives call for overruling the Senate parliamentarian — a tactic that doesn’t even have enough support within the caucus to be successful.

But that’s by no means their only hurdle as they try to line up the caucus behind a bill.

A group of Democrats held a call with Biden on Monday where they talked about ways to further target the House bill, including changing the phase-out structure of the stimulus checks. Senators voted 99-1 during the budget vote-a-rama, which teed up the coronavirus bill, for restricting the ability of higher income households to receive a direct payment.

Durbin, on Tuesday, acknowledged that it was a point of discussion but questioned whether Democratic support went beyond that of Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season White House looks to rein in gas prices ahead of busy travel season MORE (D-W.Va.).

Democrats are also grappling with potential changes to the unemployment language in the House-passed bill.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos Overnight Energy & Environment — House passes giant climate, social policy bill Senate confirms Park Service director after years of acting heads MORE (D-Ore) wants to extend the unemployment payments into September; under the House bill they would expire in late August.

“It makes no sense to have another unemployment cliff in August, because senators are going to be gone,” Wyden said, referring to the traditional August recess.

He predicted there would be “growing support” for extending the benefits into September.

Manchin, meanwhile, also supports a $300 per week unemployment payment, not the $400 per week level in the House bill. 

“I’ve been at 300. ... I would prefer if they stay at 300,” he said. 

But because of the Senate’s tight margin, it only takes Manchin plus every Republican senator supporting an amendment to lower the weekly payment to alter the bill.

Manchin declined to say how he would handle specific amendments, noting he wants to see the text. But he credited Democratic leadership and the White House with consulting him as they’ve moved the bill toward the Senate floor. 

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“They’ve been very fair. They’ve been very open and very fair with me,” he said. “They know where I have some problems.” 

Schumer, asked about lowering the unemployment payment, acknowledged it was under discussion.

“I know that this was brought up when the group yesterday met with Joe Biden,” Schumer said. “They're discussing it.”