Democrats close in on $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package despite GOP speedbumps

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Senate Democrats were pushing toward approval overnight Thursday of a budget to clear the way for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus package, but not before the GOP forced them to take tough votes on blocking illegal immigrants getting stimulus checks and making school bailout money contingent on reopening classes.

Passage of the budget was a foregone conclusion, but Republicans were hoping to shape the contours of the future debate by putting limits on who would get money.

Senators voted 58-42 to block illegal immigrants from stimulus checks, but Democrats rallied to defeat Republicans’ attempt to prevent schools from getting aid if they remain closed even after teachers are offered vaccines.

Other thorny votes were still looming later Thursday.

The tweaks aside, Democrats will emerge with what they needed — a path to pass a massive pandemic bill through the budget process, which means they can circumvent a filibuster and won’t need to rely on GOP votes.

It’s also the first budget to pass under the guidance of a socialist. Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, shepherded the bill through as chairman of the Budget Committee.

“This budget resolution will allow us to keep the promises we made to the American people,” Mr. Sanders said in defending the breadth of the plan.

While non-binding, the immigration vote could complicate matters as the bill heads back to the House, which passed its own version on Wednesday. Leaders had hoped if the Senate made changes the House would just vote on that new text, but some rank-and-file Democrats said they’d be hard-pressed to vote for the document after the immigration language was attached.

Senators also voted overwhelmingly in favor of stricter limits on Americans who would get stimulus checks, suggesting new common ground in trying to bring down the price tag of Mr. Biden’s plan.

That amendment offered by Sens. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, and Susan Collins, Maine Republican, said those with incomes in the multiple hundreds of thousands don’t need the help.

“Do we want stimulus checks to go to households with family incomes of $300,000 or do we want to target the assistance to struggling families?” Ms. Collins said.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer griped that GOP amendments were an attempt to “score political points.”

“That’s fine, that’s their right,” he said. “But I sincerely hope our Republican colleagues approach our work today with the intention of having serious ideas considered.”

He told senators the debate should be “serious.”

Republicans said the way Mr. Schumer is operating, pushing a mostly blank budget through the chamber four months after the fiscal year began, without going through the Budget Committee or seeking serious GOP input, undercut Democrats’ complaints.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Democrats are approaching the debate with a massive price tag, then going back to fill in the details with a liberal wish list, including a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage and a bailout for states and localities that say they’re facing a budget squeeze.

And he chided Mr. Schumer, who last year complained that “sitting in your own office, writing a bill, and then demanding the other side support it is not anyone’s idea of bipartisanship.”

“That was then. This is now,” Mr. McConnell said.

Congress last year approved about $4 trillion in pandemic relief, with the most recent $900 billion package coming in late December.

All told, about $1 trillion still remains unspent, Republicans said.

“Back home in Indiana people know you should finish what’s on your plate before you go back for seconds,” said Sen. Mike Braun, Indiana Republican.

Usually budgets are supposed to lay out the overall funding level for the federal government for a fiscal year.

But in this case, Congress set the 2021 levels by agreement and already passed spending bills to carry them out.

The only reason to pass a budget now is to create a chance to circumvent the filibuster in the Senate and carve out nearly $2 trillion worth of deficit space to accommodate Mr. Biden’s vision.

Once both the House and Senate are on the same page on the budget, committees will go to work on the details of Mr. Biden’s plan, and their work will be stitched together in a “reconciliation” package on which both chambers will have to vote.

That’s where Democrats’ efforts could stumble, as they reach for progressive dream items such as the $15-an-hour national minimum wage.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not answer directly when asked Thursday whether Mr. Biden was willing to jettison the $15-an-hour provision if it meant Republicans would support the broader package, saying only that the president is committed to raising the minimum wage.

“He thinks it’s an important step for American workers and for American families,” Ms. Psaki told reporters at the White House. “There’s obviously a process that’s ongoing … that will make some determinations about what can and cannot be in the bill based on rules.”

The spokeswoman also danced around a question this week over who Mr. Biden considers “middle class” and therefore needs checks.

“I don’t know that he looked at the bill as his own personal definition of the middle class, as much as a definition of the people who need help the most,” Ms. Psaki said.

While the budget clears the way for Democrats to approve Mr. Biden’s plan without GOP support, the president has been exchanging ideas with a group of 10 Republican senators.

The White House provided them with justifications this week for Mr. Biden’s price tag, and they replied Thursday with a letter thanking the president for the outreach, but saying they still have “significant questions” about the size of his plan.

In particular, they said tens of billions of dollars remains available from previous bills to help schools adapt to pandemic education.

Some Democrats fear Republicans are using the negotiations to slow down momentum for the plan.

Earlier Thursday White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein had suggested a final package could be approved before Senate takes up the impeachment of former President Donald Trump on Tuesday.

“You know, that kind of legislative train schedule is not the kind of thing I pay attention to, but my gut response is yes,” Mr. Bernstein said at a Washington Post event. “The costs of inaction are the reason for our urgency.”

Congressional Democrats have said they’re working on a deadline of mid-March, when expanded unemployment benefits from the most recent round of relief are due to expire.

Some Senate Democrats have floated the idea of trying to do other business around the edges of the impeachment trial, but Republicans said that was unlikely to happen. They said Democrats could cancel the trial or bring it to a swift acquittal, but said it’s too weighty an issue to do half-baked while the chamber focuses on other matters.

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