Democrats break COVID-19 impasse with deal on jobless benefits

Senate Democrats reached a deal on unemployment payments on Friday evening after an hours-long delay snagged the nearly $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

Democrats will offer a proposal to provide a $300 per week unemployment payment through Sept. 6, according to a Democratic aide. The deal would also make the first $10,200 of benefits non-taxable for households with an income less than $150,000.

The deal comes as the Senate has been stuck in limbo for hours as Democrats tried to craft an agreement that could get 50 votes within the caucus. The deal could let the Senate quickly resume its marathon voting session, known as a vote-a-rama, after it was paused following just one vote on whether to include a minimum wage hike. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who was at the center of the hours-long holdup, threw his support behind the deal.

“We have reached a compromise that enables the economy to rebound quickly while also protecting those receiving unemployment benefits from being hit with unexpected tax bill next year," he said.

"Those making less than $150,000 and receiving unemployment will be eligible for a $10,200 tax break. Unemployment benefits will be extended through the end of August," he added.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was more cautious, saying that he didn’t want to get ahead of himself after the earlier setback, but that “we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Wyden said the agreement reached Friday evening would let Congress "avoid the August cliff," a reference to concerns that lawmakers would set the expiration for the payments while they were in the middle of a scheduled August recess. 

Under the House bill, Congress would have given a $400 per week payment but had it expire at the end of August, when members are not expected to be in town. 

The deal comes after the Senate effectively paused for roughly eight hours as Democrats tried to get buy-in from Manchin. Democrats started a vote on Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) minimum wage amendment at 11:03 a.m., with the vote remaining open well into the evening.

It marked a chaotic start to the debate over the coronavirus bill, which Democrats hope to pass this weekend. 

Democrats had initially announced on Friday that they had an agreement. Under that initial deal, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) was offering an amendment that would provide the $300 per week payment until early October. It also made the first $10,200 non-taxable but did not put a cap on the income for households that could qualify. 

Democrats had characterized Carper's amendment as a deal between moderate and progressive factions, underscoring the balancing act of their narrow majority. In the narrow 50-50 majority, Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) needed every member of his caucus to support an agreement on unemployment payments in order for it to get into the bill, which allows Manchin or another senator to make eleventh-hour demands. 

But it quickly became clear that Democrats had rolled out the deal too quickly and without a key vote locked down: Manchin, the most conservative member of the caucus. 

Republican senators said they thought they had Manchin's support for a competing GOP amendment from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would have provided a federal unemployment payment of $300 per week though mid-July. 

“I feel bad for Joe Manchin. I hope the Geneva Convention applies,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the Senate GOP whip, told reporters, predicting that all 50 GOP senators would support Portman’s proposal if Manchin would vote for it. 

Manchin was spotted huddling on the floor with Portman. He was also surrounded by Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) and Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.). 

As the hours dragged on, senators told The Hill that President Biden was actively calling Manchin to discuss the unemployment language with him. One senator told The Hill that by mid-afternoon they had already been on the phone two or three times. Manchin, asked about the comments, declined to comment.

But Manchin also kept his colleagues guessing, with Durbin telling reporters hours into the standoff that he didn’t ultimately know how Manchin would come down. 

Once the Senate moves forward, Wyden said that they would vote on both the Democratic deal and Portman's amendment.

"I think it's going to come down to two choices for senators, there's a Portman amendment. This bill sets an arbitrary date," Wyden said. "The other proposal will be the Carper-Wyden proposal ... and it's going to avoid the August cliff."