Early Friday morning, Vice President Kamala Harris broke a tie in the Senate to pass the budget resolution moving toward passage of a COVID-19 relief package. Harris’ tie-breaking vote came at 5:30 AM after a “vote-a-rama” night in the Senate, with dozens of amendments offered.
Passage of the budget resolution is a critically important step, but it does not mean that President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief proposal is now law. Instead, this vote paved the way for Congress to hammer out the details on that plan, write them into concrete legislation, and then pass that package under a simple majority vote. The Washington Post notes a mid-March deadline, when unemployment benefits begin to expire—but congressional Democrats need to realize this is urgent and act accordingly.
Key provisions that were debated Thursday night and Friday morning included $1,400 per person relief payments, with Democrats making a big mistake by indicating openness to tighter means testing, phasing out the payments at a lower income level—perhaps as low as $50,000 a year—than previous COVID-19 payments. Since the income levels that qualified or excluded people from receiving the payments would still be from 2019, before millions of people lost their jobs in a global pandemic, that could miss a whole lot of people who really need help. Sharply restricting who gets these payments by using out-of-date information would be both terrible policy and terrible politics.
Many of the amendments offered were Republican attempts to throw wrenches in the process or force Democrats to take hard votes. But one such effort notably flopped, when Sen. Joni Ernst rose to call on the Senate to pass an amendment banning a minimum wage increase to $15 during a global pandemic. Ernst was outraged anyone would try such a thing … and then Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chief sponsor of the Raise the Wage Act of 2021, rose to agree to her amendment, because his bill raises the minimum wage gradually, only getting to $15 in 2025. Sanders emphasized the importance of raising the minimum wage and called for it to be passed in the ultimate reconciliation bill because “we need to end the crisis of starvation wages in Iowa and around the United States”—but “I will support this amendment because nobody is talking about doubling the federal minimum wage during the pandemic.” Sanders volunteered for a voice vote on the amendment, to Ernst’s apparent surprise.
Democrats also turned back an attempt to ban a federal carbon tax. Other noxious Republican amendments did succeed, though: Eight Democrats voted yes on Sen. Todd Young’s measure banning undocumented immigrants from receiving stimulus payments, and two Democrats joined Republicans on an amendment trying to protect the Keystone XL pipeline.
Most of the vote-a-rama amendments, however, are non-binding. Overall, the night was a huge win—the media will talk about this as Democrats vs. Republicans, but the real win here is for people struggling in the COVID-19 economy, who need the relief that will ultimately be delivered thanks to this first vote.