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Democrats reach deal on unemployment aid, allowing $1.9 trillion relief bill to go forward


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U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 10, 2021.

Al Drago | Reuters

Senate Democrats reached an agreement Friday night on how to structure unemployment aid in their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, allowing the plan to move forward after hours of delays.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia backed his party’s jobless benefit proposal, after his reluctance to support a previous iteration of the plan held up Democrats’ push to approve the measure this weekend. The disagreement over unemployment insurance threw the Senate into chaos as Democrats and Republicans urged the conservative Democrat to back their unemployment proposals.

The deal will extend a jobless benefit supplement at the current $300 per week through Sept. 6, according to NBC News. It will make the first $10,200 in unemployment aid non-taxable to prevent surprise bills. The provision will apply to households with incomes under $150,000.

“We have reached a compromise that enables the economy to rebound quickly while also protecting those receiving unemployment benefits from being hit with unexpected tax bill next year,” Machin said in a statement Friday.

Democrats will offer the unemployment change during a marathon of votes on amendments known as a vote-a-rama, which is expected to resume Friday night. After lawmakers get through an indefinite number of amendments, they can move toward final passage of the legislation.

Democrats initially proposed a $400 per week jobless benefit through August, as passed by the House on Saturday. Manchin had considered backing a plan put forward by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, to extend the $300 weekly supplement into July.

The change to unemployment aid appeared to be an attempt to appease disparate members of the Democratic caucus. The party cannot lose a vote and still win a simple majority, the baseline needed under budget reconciliation in the chamber split evenly by party.

Trimming the length of the assistance too much risked losing House Democratic support when the legislation is expected to head back across the Capitol for representatives’ approval next week. President Joe Biden “supports the compromise agreement,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Friday night.

“Most importantly, this agreement allows us to move forward on the urgently needed American Rescue Plan,” she said of Democrats’ relief bill.

Cutting the unemployment benefit by $100 per week appeared to be a concession to the most conservative Democrats. Party leaders already agreed to limit the number of people who would get $1,400 direct payments because Manchin and others had concerns about how the checks were targeted.

An extension of extra jobless benefits was also expected to appeal to senators led by Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, who worried about millions of Americans suddenly losing financial support when the unemployment aid programs expired in August. Provisions providing a boost to jobless benefits and extending eligibility for them lapsed once last summer. Congress did not renew them until December.

Wyden has called to tie the jobless aid to economic conditions so that it does not expire before the economy recovers. In opposing the relief bill, some Republicans have contended a $400 per week unemployment boost would discourage people from returning to work. They made the same argument when lawmakers approved a $600 per week supplement last year, but some research suggests the policy would not have a major effect on people deciding to seek jobs.

Democrats aim to approve their latest rescue package before March 14, the day when the current $300 per week unemployment benefit expires. However, the delays Friday threatened its quick passage as the deadline approaches.

Senate Democrats hope to pass the bill by this weekend. Republicans can drag out the process, as they face no limit on the number of amendments they can offer to the plan.

The House aims to approve the Senate version of the plan by next week and send it to Biden to sign into law.

— CNBC’s Ylan Mui contributed to this report

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