$1.9T Covid aid bill heads for agonizing Senate ‘vote-a-rama’

By | March 5, 2021

The rollercoaster passage of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package is about to reach its Senate zenith.

The Senate is heading for a marathon voting session meant to inflict maximum political pain, set to start midday Friday. The protracted ordeal, known as “vote-a-rama,” is widely despised by members of both parties and guaranteed to leave sleepless members running on fumes just ahead of the bill’s passage in the upper chamber, likely Saturday. But there’s no way around it.

The legislative endurance run — which allows any member to propose an amendment and command a drawn-out roll call vote — is part of the budget reconciliation process, which Democrats are using to pass Biden’s plan without the need for GOP support. Once the vote-a-rama is done, Senate Democrats could pass the bill on Saturday, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. The amended relief bill would then go back to the House, which must approve the changes before sending the legislation to the president’s desk.

Senate Republicans plan to make Democrats pay for leaving them out of the package, forcing votes on dozens upon dozens of amendments after Congress passed five pandemic aid bills with bipartisan support last year. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) on Thursday already forced clerks to read the entire 628-page bill out loud on the floor, which ended at 2:04 a.m. Friday.

“President Biden told us he would meet us halfway, but if that’s so, he’s a damn poor judge of distance,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), referring to Biden’s initial short-lived interest in negotiating a bipartisan bill. “He chose to go with reconciliation and ram this down everybody’s throat.”

“This is our chance to try to improve the bill,” he said. “I hope many of our amendments get adopted. If they don’t, I think the only way to improve this bill is with a shredder.”

The Senate already slogged through one vote-a-rama last month, amending a budget measure that unlocked the reconciliation process, which allows Democrats to pass Biden’s package with a simple 51-vote majority in the upper chamber. The agony lasted nearly 15 hours, concluding around 5:30 a.m. after lawmakers voted on a raft of largely symbolic amendments.

But now the main event is Biden’s pandemic package itself — and some amendments are expected to receive bipartisan backing. One proposal that could pass would lower boosted weekly federal unemployment benefits in Biden’s bill from $400 to $300, amid a push from centrist Democrats and Republicans to pare back the coronavirus relief package and make it more targeted.

“That’s what I hear is the most likely to get bipartisan support,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

“The whole term vote-a-rama has never sounded to me like it should apply to the ‘world’s greatest deliberative body,’” he added. “It is what it is and it always turns into a largely partisan exercise.”

Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is also expected to offer an amendment to raise the hourly minimum wage to $15 by 2025 after that proposal was forced out of Biden’s plan. The Senate parliamentarian, the upper chamber’s official adviser on procedural matters, said the wage hike violated obscure budget rules guiding the reconciliation process.

The closely watched vote on the minimum wage will force Democrats to take a stance on the issue, which has divided progressives and moderates in the caucus.

When asked Thursday about GOP stamina to make the whole affair as agonizing as possible, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) flexed his bicep.

During the last vote-a-rama, Democrats and Republicans joined together to approve amendments ensuring that $1,400 stimulus checks wouldn’t go to “upper-income taxpayers,” to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving stimulus checks and prevent tax hikes on small businesses during the health crisis, among other issues.

Democrats shot down GOP amendments that would prohibit the cancellation of border wall contracts and deny federal cash to schools that don’t reopen even after teachers are vaccinated, among many other failed tweaks.

“You’re never ready for it, vote-a-rama, but you have to be prepared for it,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the Senate’s top Republican appropriator.

“Sometimes you ask the question, why didn’t we start it earlier in the day and rationally approach things?” Shelby added. “But sometimes, it turns out, both sides stretch it into the wee hours of the morning.”