By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives will take up final approval on Friday of a budget measure that would let Democrats push President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package through Congress in coming weeks without Republican support.
A planned vote will come hours after the U.S. Senate narrowly approved an amended version of the budget plan, at the end of a marathon debate that featured votes on dozens of amendments from both parties.
House leaders said lawmakers will hold a procedural vote around midday, and if that succeeds, the budget will be deemed adopted. The House approved an initial version of the budget measure earlier this week.
At the end of a session lasting about 15 hours, the Senate found itself in a 50-50 partisan deadlock over passage, with the winning “yes” vote for the Democrats provided by Vice President Kamala Harris, using her power to break a tie.
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 reversing three earlier votes that Republicans had won. Those would have used the coronavirus aid battle to back a Canada-to-United States oil pipeline, support hydraulic fracking for oil and gas, and bar coronavirus aid to immigrants living in the United States illegally.
They were overturned by Harris, casting her first vote to break a 50-50 tie since being sworn in on Jan. 20.
Before finishing its work, the Senate approved a series of amendments to the budget outline. The House must now vote again to accept the Senate’s changes.
Among the changes, 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.
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 nine justices.
RANGE OF ISSUES
The approved amendments do not carry the force of law in a budget blueprint, but will serve as guidelines for developing the actual coronavirus aid bill in coming weeks.
Passing the budget plan in both houses would let Democrats enact Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal over the opposition of Republicans, by unlocking a legislative tool called reconciliation. That lets them pass a bill with a simple majority in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes normally needed to move legislation forward in the 100-seat chamber.
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 had not yet been spent. Last year, Congress passed emergency bills totaling around $4 trillion to deal with COVID-19 crisis.
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 they voted 99-1 to recommend 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. An earlier round of payments reduced the checks for individuals earning more than $75,000 or married couples earning $150,000.
“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; additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Peter Graff)