Live stimulus updates: Senate braces for marathon debate on Joe Biden’s COVID relief plan

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s months-long crusade to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus plan may enter its final stretch Wednesday, when senators could begin 20 hours of debate on the measure that is expected to come to a vote later in the week.

Meanwhile in the House, leaders are already looking to take up the bill for a final vote as soon as Monday, a timeline that means the law – with its $1,400 stimulus checks, funding to state and local governments and tax credits for families – could become law by next week.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday Democrats are “on track” to pass the bill by March 14, when a federal boost to unemployment benefits expires.

“I expect a hearty debate. I expect some late nights on the floor,” he said.

Schumer said the Senate could take a procedural vote as soon as Wednesday to begin debate and set up the process to pass the bill through the chamber later in the week.

Under the Senate process being used to pass the bill, debate on the bill is capped at 20 hours, but it will be followed by a period where senators can introduce amendments to the legislation but cannot debate them. The subsequent flurry of votes is known as a “vote-a-rama.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., attends a news conference on Feb. 25, 2021.

Republicans cannot do much to stop the final passage of the bill, but the amendment process allows them to force Democrats to take potentially painful votes on controversial issues.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, predicted the amendment process would be about “walking this plank that Biden and Schumer and Pelosi are asking Democrats to walk.”

A key Senate official already ruled a major portion of the legislation, a hike in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, cannot stay in the legislation. Democratic senators backed off a plan to levy taxes on large corporations that did not pay their workers at least $15 an hour, citing the limited amount of time to pass the legislation.

Senators are currently deliberating whether to extend the unemployment benefits in the bill from the end of August to the end of September. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told reporters Tuesday there was “growing support” to do so. But increasing the overall cost of the bill by adding in provisions like an extra month of unemployment means the Senate will have to make adjustments elsewhere.

Democrats are also considering lowering the eligibility threshold on the plan’s $1,400 stimulus check payments. They currently start to phase out after $75,000 of income, but moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., had previously called for a lower threshold of $50,000 to prevent wealthier Americans from receiving checks.

The bill, which passed the House on a mostly party-line vote last week, must return to the House to be passed one last time before Biden can sign it because of the changes the Senate expects to make to the bill. There are unlikely to be many other substantive changes in the bill by the time it returns to the House.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House would likely vote on the bill on Monday. He did not think the Senate would adopt any changes “so egregious” the bill would fail when it came back to the House.

2 infrastructure projects derided by Republicans dropped from COVID bill

Two infrastructure projects derided by Senate Republicans were dropped from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Tuesday following deliberations with a key Senate official, according to a spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill said the bill’s funding for an expansion of the BART, a subway system serving the San Francisco Bay Area, was struck from the bill because it was “part of a pilot project.” And $1.5 million in funding for a bridge between part of upstate New York and Canada was also scrapped.

“Now that the two projects that Republicans misled the public about in the House bill have been removed, it is unclear how Republicans will justify their opposition to the American Rescue Plan, which has strong bipartisan support among the public,” Hammill said.

The projects had drawn fierce opposition from Republicans, who derided them as unrelated pet projects for Democratic leaders.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Tuesday, “This is the way Nancy Pelosi gets $140 million for her tunnel of love to Silicon Valley.”

The bridge, however, was in the district of Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., a top Trump backer, and had originally been part of a funding request under President Donald Trump’s administration by then-Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

The bridge had been dropped during deliberations because the congresswoman representing its district, Stefanik, did not advocate for it, according to a Senate source.

Stefanik spokesperson Karoline Leavitt said the bridge funding had been a “bad, bad deal” relative to the amounts of funding for other projects in the bill, calling the spat a “swing and a miss” for Pelosi.

– Nicholas Wu

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