WASHINGTON — Democrats laid aside one battle over boosting the minimum wage but promptly descended into another internal fight Friday as the party haltingly tried moving its $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill through the Senate.
Hours after asserting they’d reached a deal between party moderates and progressives over renewing emergency unemployment benefits, lawmakers said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, now preferred a less generous Republican version of the payments.
Manchin is probably the chamber’s most conservative Democrat and is a kingmaker in a 50-50 Senate that leaves his party without a vote to spare. With Democrats’ scant majorities — they have a mere 10-vote edge in the House edge — the party can’t tilt too far to the center without losing progressive support.
The episode tossed fresh complications into the Democrats’ drive to give quick approval to a relief bill that is President Joe Biden’s top legislative goal. They still seemed likely to pass the package, but the problem underscored headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years as they move their agenda through Congress with such slender margins.
“I don’t know where he is,” said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, when asked for Manchin’s latest stance on jobless benefits.
Asked if Democrats could simply accept the GOP’s version, Durbin said, “We don’t want to. We want to get this wrapped up.”
That was a reference to a need to move the overall relief bill once again through the House, which has a large numbers of liberal Democrats and approved an initial version of the legislation last weekend that the Senate has since changed.
The relief legislation, aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health, will provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans. There’s also money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry, tax breaks for lower-earners and families with children and subsidies for health insurance.
The package faces a solid wall of GOP opposition.The Senate voted 51-50 Thursday to begin debating the legislation, prevailing only with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. That nail-biter and a host of eleventh-hour deals Democratic leaders were cutting with rank-and-file lawmakers reflected the delicate task of moving the measure through the precariously divided chamber.
The House version of the massive relief package provides $400 weekly emergency unemployment benefits — on top of regular state payments — through August.
In a compromise with moderates revealed earlier Friday, Senate Democrats said that would be reduced to $300 weekly but extended until early October. The plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., would also reduce taxes on unemployment benefits. But lawmakers later said Manchin preferred an alternative by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would provide $300 weekly benefits until mid-July.
Manchin has been a leading voice among moderates trying to rein in the relief bill’s costs. Democratic leaders were trying to reach some agreement with Manchin, and his office did not return requests for comment.
Before the unemployment benefits drama began, senators voted 58-42 to kill a top progressive priority, a gradual increase in the current $7.25 hourly minimum wage to $15 over five years. The Senate parliamentarian said the hike could not pass under rules that allow Democrats to pass the aid bill with a simple majority, but progressives wanted the chamber to overrule that decision.
Eight members of the Democratic caucus voted against the proposal, including Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other progressives vowing to continue the effort in coming months will face a difficult fight.
Republicans say the overall bill is a liberal spend-fest that ignores that growing numbers of vaccinations and signs of a stirring economy suggest that the twin crises are easing.
“Our country is already set for a roaring recovery,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in part citing an unexpectedly strong report on job creation. “Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.”
Democrats reject that, citing the 10 million jobs the economy has lost during the pandemic and numerous people still struggling to buy food and pay rent.
“If you just look at a big number you say, ‘Oh, everything’s getting a little better,'” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It’s not for the lower half of America. It’s not.”
In an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70 percent of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44 percent of Republicans.
Story by Alan Fram. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.