COVID-19 relief debate stalls in Senate amid Democratic drama


Democratic drama over unemployment benefits is snagging the Senate’s coronavirus relief debate.

The Senate has been stuck in a state of limbo for hours as senators try to figure out the path forward on 10 weekly unemployment payments.

Senators have filed two competing unemployment proposals: One, from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), would provide $300 per week through mid-July, a significantly shorter timeline than what’s supported by most Democrats.

The second, from Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), would provide a $300 weekly payment through September.

That’s a change from the House bill, which provided $400 per week through August. But Democrats unveiled the agreement earlier Friday, characterizing it as a deal worked out by their moderate and progressive factions.

In order for Democrats to attach their proposal to the coronavirus bill, they would need the support of all 50 members of their caucus and Vice President Harris to break a tie.

But in a significant snag, Portman told reporters that he believes he can get the support of all 50 senators and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to vote for his proposal.

“I think so,” Portman said, asked if he has the entire GOP caucus and Manchin.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Republicans were waiting for Democrats to “get their members in line.”

“I feel bad for Joe Manchin. I hope the Geneva Convention applies,” Thune said.

A senator said that the hold-up was uncertainty on whether Manchin would support Carper's amendment.

Depending on how the amendments were structured, Democrats could technically strip out Portman's amendment, if it was added to the bill, by holding a subsequent vote on Carper's proposal. But to do that, they would need Manchin's support.

A spokesperson for Manchin didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Manchin was spotted huddling with Portman on the Senate floor before heading into the GOP cloakroom.

Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) were overheard by reporters chatting with Manchin on the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, Carper was going between the floor and a room nearby where he was huddling with staff.

Asked about Manchin, Carper appeared visibly agitated, telling reporters: “No comment.”

As the hours dragged on, Portman and Thune huddled to talk to Manchin by phone. Thune told reporters after the call that Manchin was facing pressure to fall in line and support Carper's amendment.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters shortly before 4:30 p.m., hours into the standoff, that he wasn't sure where Manchin was going to ultimately come down. 
 
Part of the headache for Democrats is that any bill that passes the Senate would have to get the support of House Democrats. There are concerns among senators that if they both reduce the amount of the weekly payments and reduce the amount of time that the payments are made, House progressives could balk and refuse to support the bill.

"It will pass [the Senate], the question is whether we then have to go to conference," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a reference to conference committees where the House and Senate would work out their differences.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) added that senators were trying to avoid having to go pass the bill again, or renegotiate with the House and the White House.

"It certainly won't prevent it from passing the Senate," he said, "but then, will the House take the bill?"

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