Marathon Fight to Pass U.S. Pandemic Relief Tests Democrats’ Majority

The battle to pass a COVID-19 relief bill demonstrated how hard things will be for U.S. President Joe Biden’s Democrats in Congress, facing opposition from right and left as they try to score big wins with small majorities, Reuters reports.

A smiling Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sang the praises of Democratic unity on Saturday after his chamber approved the $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid plan, one of the largest economic stimulus packages ever. He predicted it will be approved by the House of Representatives next week and quickly signed into law by Biden.

But a day earlier, the Senate was paralyzed for hours when just one Democrat bucked a proposal from his own party affecting unemployment benefits. Because no Republicans backed the bill in a Senate split 50-50, progress on the legislation stopped cold.

Democrats eventually found a solution that satisfied the senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia. They stayed unified and swatted away a host of Republican amendments in an all-night session. The relief bill passed 50-49, with one Republican absent.

The episode highlighted the Democrats’ razor-thin advantage.

“This was a reminder yesterday that in a 50-50 Senate, if any one member changes their mind on an amendment, or a vote, or an issue, it can change the outcome,” Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat, told reporters.

Coons said it was “remarkable” that Schumer held together the Democratic caucus, whose members range from conservatives like Manchin to progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and twice sought the party’s presidential nomination.

Some Senate changes to the bill, like reducing its enhanced unemployment benefits, will upset progressives in the House. The Democratic majority there has more room for dissenters, with 221 Democrats and 211 Republicans. Nonetheless Democrats can only afford to lose a handful of their own and pass anything.

At least House rules allow legislation to pass by simple majority.

As Democrats now turn to other priorities such as infrastructure spending and immigration reform, Senate rules require 60 votes for most legislation to advance. Generally, the 50 Democratic Senate votes plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris will not be enough.

A procedural maneuver called “reconciliation” allowed Democrats to get around the 60-vote hurdle for the COVID-19 stimulus. It lets bills affecting spending, revenue and debt levels pass with a simple majority.

But there are limits to how often reconciliation can be used and what it can be used for, as the Democrats learned when the Senate’s rules expert jettisoned Biden’s campaign promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 as part of the COVID-19 package.

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