Five takeaways from the budget marathon
The Senate after a marathon, overnight session known as the vote-a-rama adopted a slew of amendments to a budget resolution that will pave the way for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
The budget resolution, which passed the Senate at 5:30 a.m. and was approved by the House in the early afternoon Friday, is the first step in the reconciliation process that Democrats are using to sidestep a GOP filibuster.
Many of the amendments were ultimately nothing more than acts of messaging, setting up nonbinding “deficit-neutral reserve funds” for a slew of pet causes. Three of the amendments that were approved, pertaining to fracking, the Keystone XL Pipeline, and undocumented immigrants were ultimately stripped out just before final passage to avoid creating problems in the House.
The all-night vote-fest, however, gave some insight into how the process might play out over the coming weeks as President Biden again on Friday signaled his willingness to move forward with or without GOP support.
Here are the five takeaways.
$1,400 direct payments are here to stay, but there could be restrictions
Biden is insisting the bill include $1,400 checks, but the Senate made crystal clear that the checks could be more targeted to those in need.
In a 99-1 vote, the Senate adopted an amendment from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) to ensure payments don’t go to high-income earners. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who more broadly opposes the checks, was the only “no” vote.
The vote showed strong bipartisan support for the idea of restricting checks, something Biden has also signaled support for.
But if the aim is to reduce the package’s price, senators may be in for a disappointment.
Further restricting eligibility for the checks could reduce the overall cost of the $1.9 trillion bill, but not by that much, according to Marc Goldwein, head of policy at the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
A new round of $1,400 checks designed as in the last round to slowly phase out for individuals earning more than $75,000 annually and couples earning more than $150,000 would cost as much as $455 billion, he said. If the phase out started at $50,000 and decreased more quickly, he said it would make a minor dent.
“It’ll be hard to get it much below $400 billion,” he said. “You’d need a pretty dramatic phaseout to get much below that.”
Raising the minimum wage is in trouble
Progressives hoped to use the package to raise the federal minimum wage over time to $15 per hour, but that effort looks to be in trouble.
When Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) presented an amendment to prevent the wage hike from happening during the pandemic, there was a surprise: it passed without a big hiccup.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the wage hike’s most prominent backer, ultimately didn’t object to the matter, noting that his plan wouldn’t raise the minimum wage to $15 until well after the pandemic.
“Nobody is talking about doubling the federal minimum wage during the pandemic. we’re talking about gradually phasing it in over a five-year period,” he said.
He even urged a voice vote to move things along expeditiously.
The Ernst resolution isn’t binding, but is emblematic of larger problems Democrats face with passing the policy.
Budget experts say that the minimum wage policy likely runs afoul of the strict rules surrounding what can pass in budget reconciliation, known as the Byrd Rule.
Even if it does overcome that hurdle, Democrats cannot suffer a single defection in their 50-vote majority, which relies on Vice President Harris to break ties in their favor. Manchin has already come out against the $15 minimum, saying he thinks an $11 level is more appropriate for his state.
Other centrists may agree, but have remained more tight-lipped. In that light, Sanders’s request to advance the amendment by voice vote could be seen as an attempt to prevent key Democrats from having to go on the record about the minimum wage early on in the process.
The US embassy in Jerusalem isn’t going anywhere
Former President Trump took significant heat from liberals arguing that it would delay peace talks with the Palestinians when he moved the Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Nearly four years later, the move seems set in stone. Even those who say the decision was a mistake say that there is little point in moving the embassy back.
A resolution from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to maintain the embassy in Jerusalem passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Only three senators — Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) — voted against it.
There’s support for preventing stimulus money from going to undocumented immigrants
Republicans were able to get considerable support from Democrats on an amendment to keep stimulus money from undocumented immigrants.
Eight centrist Democrats joined them in a resolution seeking to block financial assistance such as stimulus checks from being paid out to undocumented immigrants.
The resolution was very clearly aimed at tying Democrats to an unpopular policy that could be used in political ads, as the first two rounds of stimulus checks already excluded undocumented immigrants. A more nuanced question arose in the latest round of $600 checks sent in December, regarding the fate of checks for citizens who are married to undocumented immigrants.
While the first round excluded them, the December round ensured that citizens in “mixed marriages” would still get their stimulus checks, as would their children.
Even though the amendment passed 58-42, it didn’t make it into the final budget resolution. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) stripped it out, along with two environmental amendments, in a final amendment before the resolution’s passage in the early hours of the morning, ensuring it a smooth ride through the House later in the day.
The final bill is likely to look a lot like Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal
Despite a long night of controversial and difficult votes, the vote-a-rama proved that Democrats were by and large willing to stick by the main proposals in Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
Biden has been adamant that he would engage Republicans, but move swiftly with or without them. Looming large in Biden’s mind is the 2009 stimulus bill which economists say did not rise to the moment, and resulted in a slow, difficult recovery from the Great Recession.
Another dour jobs report released Friday seemed to only strengthen Biden’s hand for decisive action, even as a former economic adviser to President Obama, Larry Summers, made waves with an opinion piece warning of risks with going big.
“One thing we learned is, you know, we can’t do too much here; we can do too little. We can do too little and sputter,” Biden said Friday.
The Senate vote-a-rama featured only a handful of adjustments that centrist Republicans have cited in their own $618 billion counter-offer to Biden.
For example, the Senate overwhelmingly agreed to an amendment from Collins to up funding for medical provider relief funds, with a special emphasis on rural hospitals, an issue she raised in a recent letter to Biden about the bill.
But that, alongside the measure on targeting stimulus checks, will not amount to very much in a $1.9 trillion bill, according to Goldwein.
The bill, he said, includes major Democratic priorities that are ultimately unrelated to COVID-19, such as expanding child tax credits, the Earned Income Tax Credit, cybersecurity to combat Russian hacks, and paid family leave beyond the scope of the pandemic.
The $350 billion going toward state and local funds also overshoots estimates of need, especially given additional funds set aside to pay for transport, an issue often addressed at the local level.
“The aid to state and localities is way, way more than you need,” he said.
If all that were separated out and other measures whittled down, Goldwein estimates that Democrats and Republicans could still come out with a $1.3 trillion bill that is closer to Biden’s proposal than the GOP counter-offer.
But Biden has little incentive to drop major Democratic priorities that could shape the success of his administration, a point his Senate backers reaffirmed in the Thursday night voting marathon.
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