Senate holds longest vote in history as Democrats scramble to save relief bill

Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) held open a vote on a minimum wage amendment for a record 11 hours and 50 minutes Friday to buy time to save the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) raised an unexpected objection.

The vote was finally closed at 10:53 p.m.

It took Schumer, with the help of President Biden, nearly nine hours to negotiate a deal with Manchin. But even then, they had to wait for the legislative text to be drafted and for a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.  

The vote broke the record set on June 28, 2019, when senators kept a vote on an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill open for 10 hours and eight minutes to accommodate Democratic presidential candidates who participated in a debate in Miami.

The Senate floor was largely empty for hours as different Democratic senators presiding over the chamber held open a procedural vote on an amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The Senate started voting on the Sanders amendment at 11:03 a.m. and by 12:15 p.m. it appeared all senators had voted. The amendment was defeated after seven Democrats and an independent voted with all 50 Republicans to sustain a procedural objection.

But the presiding chair declined to gavel the vote to a close even after there were no more votes to count, while a few lawmakers huddled on the floor, shuffling papers on desks.

At first the delay was attributed to a relatively routine dispute over what amendments would next come to the floor. 

It turned into something more serious when it became clear that Manchin was willing to vote for an amendment sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to reduce the amount of weekly unemployment benefits in the relief bill from $400 to $300 and extend those benefits to July 18 instead of Aug. 29, as passed by the House.

If Manchin voted for the Republican amendment, it had a good chance of passing and would have derailed a more generous compromise amendment sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). The Wyden-Carper deal would have reduced the weekly benefit from $400 to $300 but would have extended payments to Oct. 4. It also would forgive taxes on the first $10,200.

Senators left the floor and there was no announcement from the leadership about what the problem was or how long it might take to resolve. Lawmakers fumed as the minutes turned into hours. They thought they would be well through the marathon session by Friday evening, but when dinner time rolled around, the chamber was still stuck on the first vote.  

“If we were doing this, you’d be all over us. We couldn’t get five feet down the hall,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) grumbled to reporters.

“Why did you put the Senate on hold for five-and-a-half hours because you won’t let two Republicans work with a Democrat to do something they want to do,” he said of the Democrats’ effort to freeze votes to persuade Manchin not to support the Republican amendment.

“They’ve been working their members over since 11 o’clock,” said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.). “They had an alternative amendment they’ve trying to whip and they’ve had problems trying to get votes for that.”

Many senators took refuge in their hideaway offices scattered around the Capitol waiting for word on when a deal would be reached on unemployment benefits. 

All the while Schumer, Biden, Wyden and Carper were working feverishly behind the scenes to hammer out a deal with Manchin. 

Carper told Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) around 6 p.m. that negotiators “were stuck.”

The stalemate on the floor recalled a similar maneuver that then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) used in 2003 to save President George W. Bush’s initiative to create the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Hastert kept a vote on the legislation open for nearly three hours. After 30 minutes of voting, the bill was set to lose 212 to 214. Hastert kept the vote open to give Bush time to call lawmakers to plead for their support. The Speaker finally allowed the vote to gavel close shortly before 6 a.m. after it garnered 220 votes.

It set the record for the longest roll call vote in the history of the House. 

Tags Bernie Sanders Chuck Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID-19 relief Dennis Hastert Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Thune Lindsey Graham Rob Portman Ron Wyden Senate Stimulus Tom Carper

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