(Bloomberg) — The Senate enters the final stages of debating President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill on Thursday, with passage in the chamber likely pushed off until the weekend.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had planned to kick off the process Wednesday night but lacked an official cost estimate on the latest version of the bill, which has been trimmed down from the House-passed measure.
In addition to stripping out a minimum-wage increase to comply with Senate rules, Biden agreed to moderate Democrats’ demands for tightening eligibility for $1,400 stimulus checks, which will also affect the Congressional Budget Office’s calculation of the overall price tag.
Once the CBO’s numbers are in and the Senate votes to begin debate, a process starts that Republicans are threatening to drag out as long as possible to register their opposition to the massive bill.
The Senate is plowing ahead despite warnings from federal law enforcement agencies that a militia group may be plotting to attack the Capitol on Thursday, about two months after a Jan. 6 siege of the building by extremist supporters of then-President Donald Trump that led to five deaths.
Two congressional aides said the House canceled plans to vote on Thursday and is scaling back other events at least in part because of the threat.
The threat may extend into the weekend as the Senate deals with the coronavirus relief bill. A joint intelligence bulletin late Tuesday from the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned that extremists discussed carrying out attacks at the Capitol from March 4 to March 6.
The March 4 timing coincides with the date linked to conspiracy theories about it being the “true inauguration day.” Presidents were sworn in on that date until the 20th Amendment to the Constitution shifted the ceremony to Jan. 20, in 1933.
With Democrats intending to get the bill to Biden’s desk by March 14, when existing supplemental unemployment aid expires, Republicans are promising to stall.
One of them, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, says he’ll demand an entire reading of the 700-page bill — something that could take 10 hours. After that, will come as much as 20 hours of debate.
The final step before the Senate completes its work is the “vote-a-rama.” That’s where the Senate votes on amendments, with GOP members vowing to stretch out the session for days, as long as lawmakers have the stamina to keep voting.
So far, the weekend work doesn’t threaten the Democrats’ goal of enacting the bill before the March 14 deadline. However, if major changes are made in the Senate that are unacceptable to House Democrats, that could force a conference committee to convene and delay final passage by Congress.
Biden has spoken repeatedly this week with Democratic senators to ensure the unity that will be vital to passage given united Republican opposition and the chamber’s 50-50 partisan divide.
As part of effort to keep Democrats together, the president agreed to a lower cap for zeroing-out stimulus payments in the aid bill, according to a Democratic aide.
Democratic Senators, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, had advocated tighter eligibility to reduce funds being transferred to those who don’t need it. Their votes will be critical in passing the legislation.
The payments begin phasing out above $75,000 in annual income for individuals and $150,000 for couples, the same as set in the House bill, the aide said on condition of anonymity. But under the Biden-backed Senate Democratic compromise, payments would fully phase out for individuals making more than $80,000, compared with a $100,000 cap in the House-passed bill. And the full phase-out for couples would be $160,000 instead of $200,000.
A separate push by moderates to trim supplemental unemployment benefits to $300-a-week from the $400 approved in the House won’t be included in what is initially brought to the Senate floor, according to the aide.
The Senate’s so-called managers’ amendment to the House bill is expected to keep the House’s figure, which is a $100-a-week increase from the current level, through August. However that could get cut back to $300 in the amendment process.
The language Biden approved gives both the moderate and progressive wings of the Senate Democratic caucus one item they wanted in the final negotiations.
“That’s a reasonable compromise,” said Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a member of Schumer’s leadership team. “We’re in a good spot to get this done.”
Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, by contrast, said, “I think the package as it had been crafted was good to go.” She said that “I think people need money.”
Democrats are aiming to resolve their outstanding differences before the vote-a-rama. Once that starts, the danger is that Republicans could reshape some of the provisions by peeling off just one Democrat.
Indeed, GOP Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said Wednesday he’s working on vote-a-rama amendments to further target the bill.
The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, predicted that Democrats would in the end stick together on the stimulus check and unemployment insurance language signed off on by Biden.
“I think some negotiations and concessions have been made to solidify the Democratic support,” Durbin said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “We are interested in seeing the total package when it comes out but so far, so good.”