Senate Democrats approved a budget resolution early Friday morning that will allow them to pass coronavirus relief without GOP support.
The budget passed the Senate in a 50-50 party-line vote with Vice President Harris breaking the tie. Because senators made changes to the resolution, it now bounces back to the House where lawmakers will need to pass it for a second time as soon as Friday.
The budget resolution doesn’t get signed into law, but it's the first step for being able to pass a subsequent coronavirus relief bill that can bypass the 60-vote legislative filibuster in the Senate.
"We have moved forward. Many bipartisan amendments were adopted. ...This was a giant first step," Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after the vote. "We will keep working as hard as we can to pass this legislation through the House, through the Senate as we go through the reconciliation process and hopefully put it on the president's desk."
The budget, effectively a shell bill, authorizes a $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill and includes instructions to congressional committees on drafting the legislation under reconciliation, the tool Democrats are using to sideline Republicans in the Senate.
Democrats now have to craft and negotiate the coronavirus legislation. If they try to pass a bill without GOP support, they'll need near-universal support from House Democrats and every vote of the 50-member Senate Democratic caucus.
President Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion plan that includes a $1,400 direct stimulus payment, a $400 per week federal unemployment benefit, $350 billion for state and local governments, a minimum wage hike to $15 per hour and more money for things like childcare, schools and vaccine distribution.
But there are already signs that Democrats, particularly in the Senate, are going to be pushing for changes. Because of the tight margin, any one Democratic senator will have leverage to shape the final coronavirus relief proposal or withhold the support needed to pass it without help from Republicans.
In a 99-1 vote, senators signaled that they support more tightly targeting the next round of stimulus checks to ensure that high-income Americans don’t get direct payments. The amendment didn’t specify how eligibility for the checks should be more targeted.
Biden’s proposal doesn’t specify the income levels for receiving payments, but previous proposals drew scrutiny because while it increased the check from $600 to $1,400, it didn’t change the structure for phasing out the payments for individuals who made more than $75,000 or couples who made more than $150,000. That meant high-income earners who were previously not eligible could have received a check.
The White House has indicated that Biden is sticking with the $1,400 amount for the checks but is willing to negotiate on eligibility.
A bipartisan group of senators also signaled support for limiting the federal unemployment benefit to $300 per week.
Democrats say they want to have GOP input – and support – for the eventual coronavirus bill.
But Republicans have fumed over Democrats' decision to pursue reconciliation, arguing that it signals they are prepared to pass coronavirus legislation on their own.
No GOP senator has signaled that they would support spending an additional $1.9 trillion on coronavirus relief at this point after Congress passed a $900 billion coronavirus relief package late last year.
A group of 10 Republicans met with Biden earlier this week to discuss coronavirus relief. The group has pitched a $618 billion proposal, which is roughly a third of the top-line preferred by Democrats, and Biden told Republicans during their Oval Office sitdown that he believed their bill was too small.
The group sent Biden a letter on Thursday night raising questions about the structuring of the relief checks and the amount of education funding in the White House plan.
“We have significant questions … about the size and scope of what is proposed in the American Rescue Plan given the amounts already appropriated by Congress and the more than $60 billion in emergency funding that remains unspent by states and school districts for K-12 schools” the group, led by GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), wrote in the letter.
The Senate’s approval of the budget resolution followed an hours-long vote-a-rama where senators forced votes on dozens of amendments, which started around 2:30 p.m. on Thursday and ended at 5:30 a.m. on Friday. Under the rules of the free-wheeling session, any senator who wants an amendment vote can get an amendment vote.
More than 800 amendments had been filed as of Thursday night. With the Senate floor typically tightly controlled, senators see vote-a-rama as their opportunity to get votes on their ideas, even if they aren’t really related to the budget. Because the budget resolution isn’t signed into law, the votes aren’t binding and are more political messaging tools or efforts to get the opposing party to go on the record.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said that most days senators are told “to wait our turn” on getting votes, but not during vote-a-ramas.
“It’s the one time with budget vote-a-rama where anybody can ask for a vote on anything,” Lee said.
And Republicans managed to score some wins.
Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) attached an amendment to the budget resolution in support of not giving stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants. Democrats warned that the way the GOP language was drafted, it also endorses not giving checks to children who are legal citizens if their parents are undocumented immigrants.
But Republicans accused Democrats of stripping out the Young amendment, as well as amendments related to support for fracking and the Keystone Pipeline at the end of the night.
"What they have done here is to reverse three important amendments that were adopted on a bipartisan basis," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said about a final amendment offered by Schumer.
Schumer didn't describe what was in his amendment, which was approved with Harris casting her first tie-breaking vote, but said that it would ensure that the House could "move forward expeditiously" with the budget resolution.
And even though reconciliation is viewed as a partisan process, the first amendment of the vote-a-rama was bipartisan. In addition to teaming up on the checks amendment, Collins and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) also got an amendment on rural hospitals attached to the budget resolution.
There were tense moments during the hours-long session.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) called out Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for not wearing a mask.
“I would like to ask Sen. Paul in front of everybody to start wearing a mask on the Senate floor like the entire staff does all the time,” Brown said.
Senators also grew frustrated at the sluggish pace of the votes. Though senators agreed to limit the votes to 10 minutes, they also frequently blew past that limit.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) tried to get a deal to enforce the 10-minute votes, with an additional minute of “grace time” if a senator needs to return to the chamber.
“We had a vote a moment ago to have 10-minute votes. The votes are closer to 30 minutes than 10 minutes,” Romney said.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added that he agreed with Romney’s sentiment – which got applause in the chamber – but warned that 10 minutes was “not practical.”
“[If] members are sitting in their chairs, amendments are called and we vote them quickly, we can come to a conclusion in a much faster way,” Durbin added.
The GOP request was ultimately rejected, with a fellow GOP senator telling Romney “nice try.”