The last three days have been a frantic rush to the finish line as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer faces his first big test to keep his caucus — a diverse coalition that includes the likes of West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders — in line to support the Covid-19 relief bill.
The bill we expect to see in the next several hours will look different than what the House passed, even if many of the most popular provisions and structures will remain untouched. That’s a reflection of the herculean task Democratic leadership and the White House have had to undertake in recent days as they’ve hustled to try and ensure that ever Democratic senator had what they needed tucked inside to back this bill. It also means the bill will have to go back to the House for another vote next week before sending it to President Joe Biden’s desk.
As we’ve said before, failure isn’t an option here. Democrats can’t go onto the field and sink Biden’s first big legislative option — a bill that most Democrats agree is badly needed even if they have individual gripes about specific provisions. As Biden said to the House Democrats last night, the point here is to remember the big picture. That’s been the message from Schumer as his caucus heads into a lengthy vote-a-rama, that’s been the message from the President and his staff and that’s what Senate Democrats have been telling each other.
They’ll get there, but the massive effort to get this bill to the finish line, which included multiple meetings with the President, around-the-clock paper trading with White House legislative affairs and even a series of conversations with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowksi about what her state of Alaska is dealing with amid the pandemic should not be overlooked. This was an all-hands-on-deck effort and if the bill passes, it shouldn’t be read as just a symptom of Democrats in lockstep.
All the ways the Senate bill will look different
We know of a few big ways the Senate bill will look different than what the House passed.
The bill won’t include:
- An increase to a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
- Funding for the bridge from upstate New York to Canada
- Money for the extension of the railway system outside of San Francisco
The bill will also change:
- The income threshold for who is eligible to get Covid relief checks will be different. Once an individual makes $80,000, they won’t get any relief check; in the House bill, that cutoff was $100,000. An individual making $75,000 a year will get the full $1,400 and it will be phased out up to $80,000.
- Includes more money for rural hospitals
- More funding to expand broadband
- More money for FEMA to help the homeless
- A slightly revised state and local formula that will help smaller population states and boosts the minimum they will receive.
Keep your eye on Alaska
The bill that will be unveiled Thursday will make some very specific changes to the bill aimed at building trust with one Republican senator: Lisa Murkowski even as the provisions will certainly help other small states that depend on tourism and fishing industries.
The meetings over the last several days haven’t really been all about Neera Tanden. Murkowski has been educating her new White House partners about the unique dynamics of her state, how this pandemic has hurt Alaska with a rollback in the cruise ship industry, with changes to tourism in the state, with the executive orders that pause oil drilling on federal lands. A source familiar tells CNN that a few of the tweaks to the House bill were specifically designed with Alaska in mind and include:
- An increase in the tourism set aside
- More funding for seafood processors
- An increase in the small state minimum in the state and local funding portion of the bill so that states with smaller populations get a bigger chunk of dollars than they would have under the House bill
This doesn’t mean Murkowski will vote for the bill, but this was intended to help build some of that bipartisanship that Biden promised on the campaign trail. This is an olive branch of sorts to show they are open to having these kinds of conversations with senators.
What we will also be looking for
- How the Senate bill deals with unemployment benefits. How long do those benefits go? We know the number will remain $400 a week, but there are questions about how long the benefits will extend to. The House bill’s benefits ran through August.
- Any other superfluous funding. This bill will be huge and tucked inside could be very specific items that were included to earn the support of individual senators. Schumer needs all of his Democratic members to stay in line. Giving them very specific sweeteners — well, that’s a good way to get votes.
How Thursday will go
The short answer is we don’t know exactly when Schumer will bring this legislation to the floor. Democrats were still waiting for Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation scores Wednesday night to make sure they are in compliance with their own budget reconciliation rules. The budget they passed last month set specific criteria for how much each committee had to spend. Before the bill goes to the floor, they have to make sure they hit those targets or the bill loses its privilege to be passed with 51 votes. It’s an important step of this process and what they are waiting for at this point. Once they know they are in compliance, they can move.
Step by step
When he has the scores and checks that everything is compliant, Schumer will go to the floor and move to proceed to Covid-relief bill that passed the House. There will be a vote. It will only take 51 votes to overcome this hurdle.
Next, Schumer will offer an amendment that includes all of the changes Democrats had to make to this bill to make it compliant with the rules of budget reconciliation and some of the changes that moderates have insisted on. This bill won’t include the minimum wage increase, and it will have tightened income thresholds for who gets stimulus checks. It won’t include controversial transportation projects in New York and California. It may also have other changes we will be on the lookout for.
At that point, Schumer will ask for the Senate to “dispense of the reading,” aka skip the part where the clerks have to read the 600-page bill. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, has said he will object and force the reading. That could take about 10 hours. If you prefer the book on tape version of the Covid relief bill to reading it, you can tune into the Senate floor and watch that.
Then the Senate will begin 20 hours of debate. The time is evenly divided. Republicans or Democrats could yield back time, so it could be limited if Democrats decide to give back significant portions of time.
Only after that, the Senate will begin the vote-a-rama, and there is no saying how long that will go.
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.