One more hurdle in Congress to pass $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The Senate passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Saturday morning, after more than 25 hours in session.

The bill was passed on a party-line vote of 50 to 49, with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) not voting due to a family emergency. Had Sullivan been there, Vice President Kamala Harris would likely have been the tie-breaking vote.

President Joe Biden delivered remarks from the White House following the bill’s passage. Biden celebrated the bill’s progress and thanked everyone involved.

“Everything in this package is designed to relieve the suffering and to meet the most urgent needs of the nation,” Biden said. “This plan is historic.”

The Senate now sends the modestly revamped bill back to the House, and then to Biden this coming week for his signature.

“We tell the American people, help is on the way,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. 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 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.

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 a slim 10-vote edge in the House.

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, D-Calif., 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 $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, R-Ky. Of Democrats, he said, “Their top priority wasn’t pandemic relief. It was their Washington wish list.”

The Senate commenced a dreaded “vote-a-thon” — a continuous series of votes on amendments — shortly before midnight Friday, and by the end had dispensed with about three dozen. The Senate had been in session since 9 a.m. EST Friday.

Overnight, the chamber was like an experiment in the best techniques for staying awake. 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.

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

The chamber reconvened Friday just hours after completing the massive task of reading aloud the entire 628-page bill into the early morning. The roughly half-day delay followed Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote to advance the relief package, and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s objection that forced clerks to read out the full legislation.

Republicans, who broadly backed COVID-19 relief spending early in the pandemic, have criticized the bill’s price tag.

Sen. Johnson told reporters he was forcing the bill’s reading to “shine the light on this abusive and obscene amount of money. ”

Schumer said Johnson would “accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks.”

Republican Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, called the package a “big, bloated, wasteful bill,” saying larger states like California, New York and Illinois received the lion’s share of the aid.

“You’ve got taxpayers in places like South Dakota and North Carolina and Georgia and other places around the country that essentially are writing checks to states which really aren’t needed,” Thune told PBS.

In the Senate, bills usually require the support of 60 senators. But the coronavirus relief bill is being advanced under a legislative maneuver known as reconciliation that allows passage with a simple majority vote.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report. Reporting by AP’s Alan Fram and Reuters’ Susan Cornwell and Makini Brice.

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