• The House hopes to pass its coronavirus relief bill within two weeks as Democrats in Congress took a key step toward using budget reconciliation to approve legislation.
  • The Senate on Friday morning passed a budget resolution, and the House will follow suit in the afternoon, starting the process that will allow Democrats to approve a rescue package with no Republican votes.
  • The party is preparing to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion legislation by itself, though leaders insist they want to win GOP votes.
  • Vice President Kamala Harris cast her first tiebreaking vote in the 50-50 Senate to move ahead with the coronavirus relief package.

The Senate passed a budget resolution early Friday after a marathon of votes on dozens of amendments. The House followed in the afternoon in a nearly party line vote, starting the reconciliation process that would allow President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package to get through the Democratic-held Senate with a simple majority.

“On Monday we will begin working on the specifics of the bill,” Pelosi told reporters after meeting with Biden and Democratic House committee chairs at the White House. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said it will have the votes to pass despite some concerns within the party about its cost.

Vice President Kamala Harris participates in a ceremonial swearing-in photo op with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. February 4, 2021.

Democrats passed the budget resolution 51-50 in the evenly split Senate, as Vice President Kamala Harris had to cast her first tiebreaking vote. The party line vote after about 15 hours of considering politically thorny amendments underscores the divide in Congress on how to structure the next aid package.

“I am so thankful that our caucus stayed together in unity,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said after the vote. “We had no choice given the problems facing America and the desire to move forward. And we have moved forward.”

He contended “this was a bipartisan activity” because the chamber adopted several amendments written by senators from both parties.

While President Joe Biden has said he hopes to win Republican support for the aid plan, Democrats have started to set up the framework to pass the proposal as soon as possible without GOP support. Without using reconciliation, Democrats would have to win 10 Republicans over in a Senate split 50-50.

Speaking after new data showed the U.S. gained only 49,000 jobs in January, Biden said he wants to work with Republicans, but the party is “just not willing to go as far as I think we have to go.” He said he faces an “easy choice” between passing a bill now with only Democrats or getting “bogged down in a lengthy negotiation.”

President Joe Biden speaks with beside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a meeting with Democratic leaders and chairs of House committees working on coronavirus disease (COVID-19) aid legislation, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, February 5, 2021.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

The budget resolution directs committees to write legislation reflecting Biden’s Covid relief package, while staying under the $1.9 trillion target. Democrats aim to pass, among other provisions:

  • $1,400 direct payments
  • A $400 per week jobless benefit through September
  • $350 billion in state, local and tribal government relief
  • A $20 billion national Covid vaccination program
  • $50 billion for virus testing
  • $170 billion for K-12 schools and higher education institutions
  • A $30 billion rent and utility assistance fund

Some Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia who can sink a bill by himself in the Senate, have raised concerns about the size of the proposal and called for more limits on who receives the $1,400 checks. While Biden said he would support capping the deposits at a lower income level, “I’m not cutting the size of the checks.”

Multiple amendments passed during the string of Senate votes, though many were vague, and it was not clear how they would affect final legislation. They included a measure to prevent high-income people from getting stimulus checks, one to set up a grant program for restaurants and one to bar tax increases on small businesses during the pandemic.

An additional amendment that passed aims to prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving direct payments. A separate measure that failed — which targeted New York without naming it — would have limited funding to states under scrutiny for underreporting coronavirus deaths in nursing homes.

Democrats have contended they cannot afford to wait to pass a bill if talks with Republicans on a bipartisan plan do not yield a breakthrough. They have said nearly $2 trillion in spending is necessary to both rein in the pandemic and prevent future economic pain.

Republicans offered Biden a $618 billion counter proposal, arguing that Congress can limit additional spending after it passed a $900 billion aid bill in December. A group of GOP lawmakers who met with Biden on Monday sent him a letter Thursday, questioning the amount of school funding in his plan and praising him for considering lowering the income cap for stimulus checks.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers have urged the White House to break its plan into smaller pieces to ensure bipartisan support for parts of it. The House Problem Solvers Caucus, which counts 56 members from both parties, urged a swift vote Friday on a $160 billion bill built around vaccine distribution funds.

The Biden administration has said it will not split the relief legislation.

Democrats hope to pass a aid package before March 14, when a $300 per week unemployment supplement approved in December expires.

“Next week committees will begin writing the detailed legislative text for the Biden American Rescue Plan, so that we can finish our work well before lifeline unemployment assistance expires,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said in a statement Friday. “The Budget Committee looks forward to receiving committees’ legislation by February 16 and then preparing the measure for floor consideration.”

Over the summer, Congress missed a deadline to extend a $600 per week jobless benefit passed in March. It contributed to the financial pain and hunger experienced across the country in the ensuing months.

After the White House meeting, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., cited the delayed response last year as reason not to wait now.

“We waited a long time, and a lot of people got hurt,” he said.