Senate takes first step toward passing $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill — here's what happens next

Key Points
  • Senate Democrats took a major procedural step toward approving the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
  • Lawmakers still need to clear hurdles to meet their goal of passing the bill by this weekend, as Republican opposition slows the process.
  • Democrats hope to get the bill to President Joe Biden's desk before unemployment aid programs expire on March 14.
Senate likely to pass $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package this weekend, with no Republican votes
Senate likely to pass $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package this weekend, with no Republican votes

The Senate took its first major step Thursday toward passing Democrats' $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package as lawmakers try to beat a deadline to prevent unemployment aid from expiring.

The chamber voted to start debate on the rescue package, setting the stage for its approval as soon as this weekend. Vice President Kamala Harris had to break a 50-50 tie after a party-line vote in the evenly divided Senate.

Democrats still have to clear procedural hurdles, and get past delays put in place by Republicans who oppose more stimulus spending, to hold a final vote on the 628-page bill.

  • Sen. Ron Johnson set the effort back by forcing Senate clerks to read the massive piece of legislation out loud. The reading wrapped up at around 2 a.m. ET on Friday after 10 hours and 43 minutes.
  • The chamber will reconvene at 9 a.m. ET on Friday, with three hours remaining to debate the package.
  • Starting at about noon ET, the Senate will hold votes on an indefinite number of amendments to the bill as part of the budget reconciliation process that enables legislation to pass with a simple majority. Republicans are expected to use amendments to force Democrats into politically thorny votes and drag out the process.

"The Senate's going to take a lot of votes," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on Friday morning. "But we're going to power through and finish this bill, however long it takes."

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., participates in a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Senate Rules and Administration committees joint hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, February 23, 2021, to examine the January 6th attack on the Capitol.
Erin Scott | Pool | Reuters

After Senate passage of the plan, the House plans to approve it by the middle of next week. Democrats aim to get the legislation to President Joe Biden's desk before March 14, when a $300 per week unemployment insurance boost and programs extending benefits to millions more people formally expire.

Democrats could pass the bill on their own in the Senate, with Harris breaking a tie.

Republicans have criticized the scope of the spending as Covid-19 vaccinations ramp up and the country gets closer to reopening in the coming months. They have also pointed to broader skepticism from economists about the need for nearly $2 trillion in stimulus, especially after Friday's better than expected February jobs report.

"Our country is already set for a roaring recovery," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Friday. "We are already on track to bounce back from this crisis."

Schumer earlier touted the proposal as "one of the largest anti-poverty bills" in the country's history. He also warned about making "the same mistake we made" after the 2008 financial crisis, when he said Congress injected too little money into the economy, "locking us into a long, slow, painful recovery."

The employment report Friday showed 8.5 million fewer people held jobs in February than did a year ago, just before the pandemic tore through the country.

Democrats have said the proposal will both boost Americans struggling to afford housing and food after nearly a year of economic restrictions and prevent future economic pain as the country starts to resume normal activities. The party, which has to keep every member on board to get the bill through the Senate, discussed a range of last-minute changes to assuage concerns.

Democrats' plan puts a $400 per week unemployment supplement in place through Aug. 29 and extends programs making more people eligible for jobless benefits through the same date. Some Democratic senators had pushed to either keep the benefits in place for a longer period of time or reduce the additional payment amount to $300 a week.

Three ways the coronavirus stimulus money may change your 2020 tax return
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To win the support of moderate Democrats, party leaders also agreed to limit the number of people who will get direct payments of up to $1,400. New income caps could mean at least 8 million fewer people would get checks than under the bill passed by the House on Saturday.

The Senate also removed a House-passed provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. The chamber's parliamentarian ruled lawmakers could not do so under budget reconciliation.

Other changes to the House bill include an expansion of the employee retention tax credit, a boost to COBRA health-insurance subsidies, and more funding for critical infrastructure and rural health care, according to NBC News.

Democrats considered a change to make sure more of the pool of $350 billion in state, local and tribal government aid went to small states.

The legislation also puts $20 billion into Covid-19 vaccine distribution, expands the child tax credit for one year and includes billions of dollars more in rent and utility assistance.

— CNBC's Jeff Cox contributed to this report

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