By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden’s drive to enact a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill gained momentum on Friday as the U.S. Senate narrowly approved a budget blueprint allowing Democrats to push the legislation through Congress in coming weeks with or without Republican support.
At the end of about 15 hours of debate and votes on dozens of amendments, the Senate found itself in a 50-50 partisan deadlock over passage of the budget plan. That deadlock was broken by Vice President Kamala Harris, whose “yes” vote provided the win for Democrats.
This was a “giant first step” toward passing the kind of comprehensive coronavirus aid bill that Biden has put at the top of his legislative agenda, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
Shortly before the final vote, Democrats flexed their muscles by offering an amendment reversing three earlier votes that Republicans had won.
Those had used the coronavirus aid battle to voice support for the Canada-to-United States Keystone XL pipeline that Biden has blocked and support for hydraulic fracking to extract underground oil and natural gas.
Also overturned was a Republican amendment barring coronavirus aid to immigrants living in the United States illegally.
With Democrat Harris presiding, she broke a 50-50 tie to overturn those Republican victories.
It marked the first time Harris, in her role as president of the Senate, cast a tie-breaking vote after being sworn in as Biden’s vice president on Jan. 20.
Before finishing its work, the Senate approved a series of amendments to the budget outline, which had already passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday. As a result, the House must now vote again to accept the Senate’s changes, which could occur as early as Friday.
For example, the Senate added a measure calling for increased funding for rural hospitals whose resources are strained by the pandemic.
Senate Democrats and the Biden administration have said they want comprehensive legislation to move quickly to address a pandemic that has killed more than 450,000 Americans and left millions jobless.
They want to spend the $1.9 trillion to speed COVID-19 vaccines throughout the nation. Other funds would extend special unemployment benefits that will expire at the end of March and make direct payments to people to help them pay bills and stimulate the economy.
They also want to send money to state and local governments dealing with the worst health crisis in decades.
But as the hours wore on and dozens of amendments were offered, exhausted senators mainly spent the night disposing of Republican ideas, such as ending all U.S. foreign aid and prohibiting Congress from expanding the U.S. Supreme Court beyond its current nine justices.
RANGE OF ISSUES
Senators voted on issues ranging from immigration and abortion to energy and taxes. But none of the approved amendments will carry the force of law in a budget blueprint and mainly are guidelines for developing the actual coronavirus aid bill in coming weeks.
More importantly, the budget plan unlocks a legislative tool called reconciliation that is designed to let Democrats approve Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal by a simple majority.
Most legislation must get at least 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to advance. But the chamber is divided 50-50 and Republicans oppose the Democratic president’s proposal. Reconciliation would allow the Senate’s 48 Democrats and two independents who align with them to approve the relief package, with a tie-breaking vote from Harris.
Republicans have countered the budget plan with proposals that would be less than one-third the cost. While their plan dovetails with the Democrats’ in some respects, Biden has deemed it as too anemic to put the country back on its feet after a year of suffering through the pandemic.
A group of 10 Republican senators who met with Biden at the White House on Monday sent him a letter on Thursday saying that significant amounts of money already appropriated by Congress have not yet been spent.
Last year, Congress passed emergency bills totaling around $4 trillion to deal with the health and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus.
In early voting on Thursday, senators delivered a message to the Biden administration that direct payments should be tailored to those who need the money the most, as it voted 99-1 to recommend that high-income earners not qualify for a new round of government checks that could amount to $1,400 for individuals.
Senators did not specify income limits. But an earlier round of direct payments placed thresholds of $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for married couples before the money would start scaling down.
“The decent compassionate thing is for us to target the relief to our neighbors who are struggling every day to get by” during the coronavirus pandemic, said Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, author of the proposal.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)