Biden, Dems prevail as Senate OKs virus relief bill
An exhausted Senate narrowly approved a US$1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Saturday as President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies notched a victory they called crucial for hoisting the country out of the pandemic and economic doldrums.
After labouring through the night on a mountain of amendments – nearly all from Republicans and rejected – bleary-eyed senators approved the sprawling package on a 50-49 party-line vote. That sets up final congressional approval by the House next week so lawmakers can send it to Biden for his signature.
“We tell the American people, help is on the way,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Citing the country’s desire to resume normalcy, he added, “Our job right now is to help our country get from this stormy present to that hopeful future.”
The huge package – its total spending is nearly one-tenth the size of the entire US economy – is Biden’s biggest early priority. It stands as his formula for addressing the deadly virus and a limping economy, twin crises that have afflicted the country for a year.
Saturday’s vote was also a crucial political moment for Biden and Democrats, who need nothing short of party unanimity in a 50-50 Senate they run because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote. They also have a slim 10-vote edge in the House. On Saturday, Senator Dan Sullivan was absent for the vote.
A small but pivotal band of moderate Democrats leveraged changes in the bill that incensed progressives, not making it any easier for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to guide the measure through the House. But rejection of their first signature bill was not an option for Democrats, who face two years of trying to run Congress with virtually no room for error.
The bill provides direct payments of up to US$1,400 for most Americans, extended emergency unemployment benefits, and vast piles of spending for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, states and cities, schools and ailing industries, along with tax breaks to help lower-earning people, families with children and consumers buying health insurance.
The package faced solid opposition from Republicans, who call the package a wasteful spending spree for Democrats’ liberal allies that ignores recent indications that the pandemic and the economy could be turning the corner.
“The Senate has never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard way,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Their top priority wasn’t pandemic relief. It was their Washington wish list.”