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Senate OKs $1.9T Virus Relief Bill     03/07 09:04

   An exhausted Senate narrowly approved a $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.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- An exhausted Senate narrowly approved a $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 laboring all 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 whisk it to Biden for his signature.

   The huge measure --- its cost is nearly one-tenth the size of the entire 
U.S. 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.

   "This nation has suffered too much for much too long," Biden told reporters 
at the White House after the vote. "And everything in this package is designed 
to relieve the suffering and to meet the most urgent needs of the nation, and 
put us in a better position to prevail."

   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 with Vice 
President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote. They hold a slim 10-vote House edge.

   Not one Republican backed the bill in the Senate or when it initially passed 
the House, underscoring the barbed partisan environment that's characterized 
the early days of Biden's presidency.

   A small but pivotal band of moderate Democrats leveraged changes in the 
legislation that incensed progressives, hardly helping Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 
D-Calif., guide the measure through the House. But rejection of their first, 
signature bill was not an option for Democrats, who face two years of running 
Congress with virtually no room for error.

   In a significant sign, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, 
representing around 100 House liberals, called the Senate's weakening of some 
provisions "bad policy and bad politics" but "relatively minor concessions." 
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said the bill retained its "core bold, 
progressive elements."

   "They feel like we do, we have to get this done," Senate Majority Leader 
Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the House. He added, "It's not going to be 
everything everyone wants. No bill is."

   In a written statement, Pelosi invited Republicans "to join us in 
recognition of the devastating reality of this vicious virus and economic 
crisis and of the need for decisive action."

   The bill provides direct payments of up to $1,400 for most Americans and 
extended emergency unemployment benefits. There are 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.

   Republicans call the measure a wasteful spending spree for Democrats' 
liberal allies that ignores recent indications that the pandemic and economy 
was turning the corner.

   "The Senate has never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard way," said 
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He said Democrats' "top priority 
wasn't pandemic relief. It was their Washington wish list."

   The Senate commenced a dreaded "vote-a-rama" --- a continuous series of 
votes on amendments --- shortly before midnight Friday, and by its end around 
noon dispensed with about three dozen. The Senate had been in session since 9 
a.m. EST Friday.

   Overnight, the chamber looked like an experiment in sleep deprivation. 
Several lawmakers appeared to rest their eyes or doze at their desks, often 
burying their faces in their hands. At one point, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, 
at 48 one of the younger senators, trotted into the chamber and did a prolonged 
stretch.

   Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, missed the votes to attend his father-in-law's 
funeral.

   The measure follows five earlier ones totaling about $4 trillion enacted 
since last spring and comes amid signs of a potential turnaround.

   Vaccine supplies are growing, deaths and caseloads have eased but remain 
frighteningly high, and hiring was surprisingly strong last month, though the 
economy remains 10 million jobs smaller than pre-pandemic levels.

   The Senate package was delayed repeatedly as Democrats made eleventh-hour 
changes aimed at balancing demands by their competing moderate and progressive 
factions.

   Work on the bill ground to a halt Friday after an agreement among Democrats 
on extending emergency jobless benefits seemed to collapse. Nearly 12 hours 
later, top Democrats and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps the chamber's 
most conservative Democrat, said they had a deal, and the Senate approved it on 
a party-line 50-49 vote.

   Under their compromise, $300 weekly emergency unemployment checks --- on top 
of regular state benefits --- would be renewed, with a final payment Sept. 6. 
There would also be tax breaks on some of that aid, helping people the pandemic 
abruptly tossed out of jobs and risked tax penalties on the benefits.

   The House relief bill, largely similar to the Senate's, provided $400 weekly 
benefits through August. The current $300 per week payments expire March 14, 
and Democrats want the bill on Biden's desk by then to avert a lapse.

   Manchin and Republicans have asserted that higher jobless benefits 
discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many 
economists reject.

   The agreement on jobless benefits wasn't the only move that showed 
moderates' sway.

   The Senate voted Friday to eject a House-approved boost in the federal 
minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, a major defeat for progressives. Eight 
Democrats opposed the increase, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and 
other liberals pledging to continue the effort will face a difficult fight.

   Party leaders also agreed to restrict eligibility for the $1,400 stimulus 
checks for most Americans. That amount would be gradually reduced until, under 
the Senate bill, it reaches zero for people earning $80,000 and couples making 
$160,000. Those ceilings were higher in the House version.

   Many of the rejected GOP amendments were either attempts to force Democrats 
to cast politically awkward votes or for Republicans to demonstrate their zeal 
for issues that appeal to their voters.

   These included defeated efforts to bar funds from going to schools that 
don't reopen their doors or let transgender students born male participate in 
female sports. One amendment would have blocked aid to so-called sanctuary 
cities, where local authorities don't help federal officials round up 
immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

 
 
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