Democrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Greg Nash

Democrats are racing to shore up support for a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package as they look to pass the bill in a matter of days in the face of increasing GOP opposition.

Senate Democrats are preparing to unveil a COVID-19 measure that will largely mirror the House-passed bill, but with a few significant changes as they cut deals to solidify support within their caucus.

The Senate version is expected to strip out language hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour after the parliamentarian ruled that it doesn’t comply with arcane rules that govern what can be in the bill. And in a significant win for a small group of moderates, it will also lower the cutoff for qualifying for a stimulus check.

“I think some negotiations and concessions may solidify Democratic support,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat.

The decision to make changes comes after weeks of behind-the-scenes talks among Senate Democrats about how to craft a bill that would satisfy a wide-ranging caucus that spans from conservative Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) to progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Those efforts were thrust into the spotlight when President Biden met virtually with a key group of Democratic senators, including Manchin and other centrists. The meeting included a discussion about how to make sure the House bill is “targeted.”

Under the changes agreed to by both Senate Democrats and the White House, individuals who make up to $75,000 a year or couples who make up to $150,000 will still receive a $1,400 stimulus check.

The direct payments, however, would phase out completely at an income threshold of $80,000 for individuals under the new Senate deal, compared to $100,000 under the House-passed bill. For couples, the checks would phase out completely at $160,000 under the Senate measure, compared to $200,000 for the House version.

Even though Democrats are changing the check structure, they are keeping the $400 weekly unemployment payments from the House bill. Democrats have been working around the clock to try to resolve differences within the caucus, with some supportive of lowering the amount to $300.

“I think we’re in a good spot … I know in our caucus that there’s been tremendous goodwill working through all of these things and just honest differences of opinion,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “Frankly, the most important thing is to get this done.”

Democrats might still try to extend the weekly jobless payments from August into September before the bill passes the Senate, arguing the next unemployment cliff shouldn’t be in the middle of a congressional recess.

Stripping out of the minimum wage hike, meanwhile, was largely expected after the parliamentarian informed senators that it didn’t comply with budget reconciliation rules — the process the Senate is using to bypass a 60-vote filibuster.

Sanders is nonetheless expected to force a vote on adding it back in, though Durbin noted it won’t be directly on the minimum wage but a procedural move that could give Democrats some wiggle room on how they vote.

The wrangling underscores how fragile the Democratic majority is as they try to clinch their first big legislative win.

With a 50-50 Senate, Biden and Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) need the support of every member of the Democratic caucus and potentially Vice President Harris in order to pass the legislation.

Schumer vowed during a weekly press conference that Democrats “will have the votes we need to pass the bill.”

Manchin, on Wednesday, declined to say how he would vote. He noted that he still needed to see the final legislative text but that he didn’t anticipate offering any amendments.

“I just think that the bill has really enough good stuff, really does have enough good stuff, that we should be able to make this work, we really should,” Manchin said. “I’m very pleased with the discussions and dialogues and some changes that have been agreed upon. I want to make sure I see the final product.”

Most Republicans are dug in against the coronavirus relief bill, raising the likelihood that Democrats will have to pass it on their own. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters that she hadn’t yet decided how she will vote.

“I am looking to this relief package, my state needs relief. … If Congress is going to move this much money out the door, how am I going to make sure that states like Alaska, who have been significantly impacted, who are still in need of rescue … get access to those rescue dollars?” Murkowski said.

Senators still need to power through the legislative gauntlet known as vote-a-rama, where Republicans are planning political and policy landmines by offering numerous amendments for floor votes. As long as Democrats stick together, GOP senators can’t sink the bill, but they can cause headaches.

“We’ve got folks who’ve got amendments that, honestly, they would like to get adopted to the bill that would change the bill to make it better. … But there are obviously — any member can offer an amendment, and I’m sure there will be a lot of amendments that are designed to be tough votes for folks on the other side,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) advised reporters that “you’re going to want to watch.” And Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who leads the Senate GOP campaign arm, pointed to issues like immigration and the Keystone XL pipeline as ripe for potential amendments.

In a delay, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is saying he’ll make Senate staff read the entire bill on the floor before the chamber can start the 20 hours of debate that proceed the voting free-for-all. And Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) predicted that it would go later than the budget resolution debate, which wrapped up after 5 a.m.

Any changes made in the Senate will have to survive the House, where progressives are grumbling about removing the minimum wage provision but aren’t signaling that they will kill the bill once it bounces back across the Capitol.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said the changes were meant to appease “the one or two people who can hold things up.”

“Let’s hope they don’t screw too many things up. We need to get this done,” he said.

Tags Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 relief Debbie Stabenow Dick Durbin Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Thune Joni Ernst Lisa Murkowski Mark Pocan Minimum wage Pandemic Ron Johnson stimulus checks
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