Biden’s $1.9T Covid deal stalls out amid benefits fight

The agreement, hatched by both moderate and progressive Democrats, also links up the expiration of unemployment benefits with the current lapse of government funding at the end of September. But a vote on the measure was delayed as Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) held an animated discussion with Manchin on the Senate floor.

One Democratic source said the holdup was Manchin, who was bristling at the Carper amendment and not committed yet to supporting it. It’s not clear whether Manchin will instead support an alternative amendment from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would extend the $300 unemployment benefits until July 18.

Sinema has indicated to Manchin that he could theoretically vote for both Carper’s Democratic amendment and Portman’s GOP amendment in an attempt to end the stalemate.

“The question is, from the Democrats’ standpoint, is how do they prevent us from getting a win,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “They’ve essentially stopped action on the floor so that they can try and persuade all of their members to stay together on some of these votes. I think they’re afraid that they could lose on [unemployment benefits].”

Democrats said they were concerned that approving the GOP changes on unemployment benefits could require another round of negotiations with the House and Biden. That would risk pushing the bill’s consideration closer to March 14, when the current round of boosted benefits is set to expire.

“If it gets to a certain level it may require renegotiating with the House and the White House and then it has to come back to the Senate. And that’s not a desirable outcome,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “The clock’s ticking, so timing is pretty important.”

The Democratic compromise has the White House’s backing, with chief of staff Ron Klain and press secretary Jen Psaki both tweeting statements of support.

“The President believes it is critical to extend expanded unemployment benefits through the end of September to help Americans who are struggling,“ Psaki said, noting that the deal will ultimately “provide more relief to the unemployed“ than the legislation that passed the House last week.

Three hours into the Senate’s first amendment vote, which began late Friday morning, there was no final roll call as Democrats continued to tussle over unemployment benefits. And there’s still plenty more drama ahead, with the GOP seeking to inflict maximum political pain. The protracted ordeal, known as “vote-a-rama,” is widely despised by members of both parties and guaranteed to leave sleepless members running on fumes just ahead of the bill’s passage in the upper chamber, likely Saturday. But there’s no way around it.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed Friday that the Senate would “power through and finish this bill, however long it takes.”

“It would be so much better if we could in a bipartisan way, but we need to get it done,” he said on the floor. “We’re not going to make the same mistake we made after the last economic downturn, when Congress did too little.”

The legislative endurance run — which allows any member to propose an amendment and command a drawn-out roll call vote — is part of the budget reconciliation process, which Democrats are using to pass Biden’s plan without the need for GOP support. Once the vote-a-rama is done, Senate Democrats could pass the bill on Saturday, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. The amended relief bill would then go back to the House, which must approve the changes before sending the legislation to the president’s desk.

The first amendment on raising the minimum wage to $15 hourly by 2025 — offered by Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — was on track to fail as expected, illustrating a broader divide over the issue between progressives and moderates in the Democratic caucus.

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