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Senate stalls as jobless benefits become contentious in Covid relief bill

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WASHINGTON — On the verge of passing a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, Senate Democrats seemed set to agree to lowering the measure’s federal unemployment benefits to $300 a week and extend the coverage to September, according to two Democratic sources.

But a disagreement over the benefits led to more than five hours of delays in holding votes on the Senate floor while lawmakers scrambled to reach an agreement.

The original deal was a reduction from the House-passed version, which included $400-per-week jobless benefits through August.

The deal was struck as the Senate began an expected long series of votes Friday to finalize the package. But the first vote remained open for more than five hours when Democrats feared the deal could fall apart if one of their members voted with Republicans to narrow the benefits.

“Be prepared for an all-nighter,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a member of her party’s leadership team, told NBC News after the sun set on the Capitol.

Stabenow said the Senate would “begin to move forward in just a little bit” and that members were “hammering out a couple of things” that include a way forward on unemployment benefits. She said Democrats still planned to pass the bill this weekend.

The earlier pact was a result of talks between progressive and moderate Democrats, one aide said.

Moderates wanted the weekly benefit to be cut to $300 per week. Many Democrats wanted the month-long jobless bonus to avoid a “cliff” as it expires at the end of August, when Congress is typically out of session and may be unwilling to come back to fix it.

The last-minute change will be offered as an amendment by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

“Having an unnecessary cliff for unemployed workers is not good policy,” Carper said in a statement. “We’ve found a way to avoid that and ensure that the millions of Americans who are still struggling to find work will see an immediate benefit before Tax Day this year.”

The amendment process got off to a rough start Friday with Democrats holding the first vote open for hours as they worked to keep all 50 of their senators on the same page to defeat Republican amendments, including on jobless benefits. Due to likely unanimous GOP opposition, they can’t afford any defections if they are to pass the bill in a narrowly divided chamber.

President Joe Biden “supports a compromise so that we can pass the Rescue Plan and get relief out, and he and his team are staying in close contact with Senators to find a resolution that will deliver for Americans who need help the most,” a White House official said in an email as the logjam persisted Friday afternoon.

In the morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted the relief bill would pass.

“We’re not going to make the same mistake we made after the last economic downtown, when Congress did too little to help the nation rebound, locking us into a long, slow, painful recovery,” he said on the Senate floor. “We are not going to be timid in the face of big challenges.”

In addition, the jobless benefit deal between Democrats allows the first $10,200 of the jobless benefits to be non-taxable, which Democrats say will prevent surprise tax bills for the jobless. It also extends tax rules on excess business loss limitations for one additional year, through 2026.

Earlier, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., criticized Democrats for pursuing a relief package without Republican votes after the chamber moved 51-50 to begin debate Thursday.

He insisted that Democrats shouldn’t get credit for the economic recovery.

“We are already on track to bounce back from this crisis. That’s not because of this bill. It’s because of our work last year,” McConnell said. “We’re going to come roaring back and mostly not because of this bill. In fact, in some ways in spite of this bill.”

The Senate looked set to reject a motion by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to re-add a minimum wage hike to $15-an-hour in the Covid bill. The vote required 60 senators to waive the budget rules, and was poised to fail 42-58, as Democrats held it open in preparation for their next steps.

Eight Democrats cast votes against it, joining all Republicans: Carper, Chris Coons of Delaware, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Angus King of Maine (an independent who caucuses with Democrats), Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., speculated that Democrats feared some of their members might back Republican amendments. Such a move could endanger final passage of the bill.

“I just think that the Democrats right now are in a bit of a quandary,” Thune told reporters. “They’ve essentially stopped action on the floor so that they can try and persuade, I think, all their members to stay together on some of these votes.”

On Friday afternoon, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, left Washington, D.C. for his home state due to a family emergency, an aide familiar with his plans said. His departure leaves Republicans with one fewer vote to battle Democrats during the amendment process.

Frank Thorp V and Julie Tsirkin contributed.




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