WASHINGTON: U.S. Senate Democrats’ effort to advance President Joe Biden’s US$1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid bill stalled on Friday as senators jousted over how long to extend enhanced unemployment benefits and how much to offer during the pandemic.
After the Senate defeated a last-ditch attempt by some of Biden’s fellow Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage, work on his first major legislative package since taking office in January ground to a halt for hours as senators met behind closed doors to find a way forward.
“We’re completely stalled out,” No. 2 Senate Republican John Thune told reporters.
Unemployment compensation was the focus on Friday, although it was just one of many battles ahead on the sweeping bill, as the Senate braced to deal with scores of amendments and a debate that could extend into the weekend.
The legislation currently calls for providing $400 per week in federal jobless benefits, on top of state benefits, through Aug. 29 to help Americans who have lost jobs amid the economic trauma caused by the coronavirus.
A Democratic congressional aide said liberal and moderate senators have agreed a compromise that would set the federal benefit at $300 per week, on top of state benefits, through September.
But Republican Senator Rob Portman is pushing a competing plan that would put the benefit at $300, but only through July 18. Major business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business supported Portman’s plan.
Moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, a pivotal vote in the closely divided Senate, had been pushing to lower the benefit from the bill’s current $400, the amount already approved by the House. Republicans said Manchin was being pressured by Democrats to stick with their compromise and not support Portman’s plan.
Aides to Manchin did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Democratic plan.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the delay in the Senate was “to break somebody’s political arm” and that Biden’s promise of bipartisanship was ringing hollow.
“To President Biden: Is this the new way of doing business?” Graham said to reporters.
Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, told reporters there were efforts under way to find “some common ground” between the Democratic and Republican proposals.
Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. Congress is scrambling to complete work on the legislation so Biden can sign it into law before March 14, when some existing pandemic-related benefits are due to expire.
With no votes to spare, Senate Democrats must keep all 50 of their members on board, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the deciding vote if no Republicans support the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is walking a tightrope as he tries to steer the bill through the Senate, aiming to keep Senate liberals and moderates happy while not alienating House Democrats.
Since the Senate has already changed the bill by removing the House-passed minimum wage increase, if it votes to approve the legislation it would have to be sent back to the House for final passage.
MINIMUM WAGE HIKE REJECTED
Senators rejected a proposal by Senator Bernie Sanders to more than double the $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage to $15 over five years. Sanders called the current level a “starvation” wage that has been in place for more than a decade.
The Senate fell far short of the 60 votes needed to overrule the Senate parliamentarian’s decision that a minimum wage increase cannot be included in the bill because of special rules governing debate.
Those rules allow for advancing the emergency spending bill, which the Biden administration has said is needed to stem the continuing economic fallout from the pandemic, with only a simple majority of supporters in the 100-member Senate, instead of 60 votes needed for most bills to clear procedural hurdles.
Democrats pledged to continue pursuing the minimum wage increase in separate legislation.
As Congress raced to approve the bill, the U.S. Labor Department reported on Friday that U.S. employment surged in February, adding 379,000 jobs, significantly higher than many economists had expected.
The U.S. unemployment rate, while still high at 6.2% last month, was down from 6.3% in January.
With Senate Republicans so far moving in lock-step against the bill, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the legislation “a poorly-targeted rush job,” adding,”Our country is already set for a roaring recovery. We are already on track to bounce back from this crisis” without fresh stimulus money.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki defended the $1.9 trillion price tag, noting that Friday’s jobs data showed the country would not return to pre-pandemic employment levels for two years, with 9.5 million people still out of work.
“If that’s satisfying to Republicans in Congress, then certainly they can speak for themselves,” Psaki told a briefing.
Republicans, who broadly backed COVID-19 relief spending early in the pandemic when Donald Trump was president, have criticized the Democratic-backed bill’s price tag.
The relief legislation includes funding for vaccines and medical supplies, extends jobless assistance and provides a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments.
Opinion polls indicate broad public support for the package.