Early Friday morning, the Senate finally approved President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. Following nearly a year of constant back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats over how much aid to provide during the coronavirus pandemic, the measure is especially significant because it would allow Congress to try to rush President Biden's COVID-19 budget into effect without requiring any Republican support. It also prevents Republicans from filibustering the relief package.
The vote passed in the early hours of the morning and was a party-line vote of 51-50. This comes just two days after the House also approved a budget measure, and the Senate is expected to make moves on its own version later today. While this action itself does not mean that the relief package has been officially passed, this resolution does allow Democrats to move forward eventually with a bill that can work around the 60-vote threshold required to end a filibuster. Essentially, that sets the stage for Democrats to be able to pass a future relief bill with a simple majority.
So, what is in the hotly contested bill? Biden's American Rescue Plan Law, which aims to help Americans recover from the devastation caused by COVID in the last 11 months, would provide $1,400 payments to millions of Americans. In addition, $130 billion of the $1.9 trillion relief package would go towards reopening schools across the country. Approximately $350 billion would be distributed to state and local governments, $160 billion would go towards vaccine testing and equipment, $50 billion would provide grants and loans to businesses, and $30 billion would be used for a rent and utility assistance fund. Furthermore, $400 in unemployment benefits per week would be distributed through September 2021. And, the federal minimum wage would rise to $15 an hour.
Although Republicans have strongly voiced their opposition to the size of Biden's proposal and have offered a smaller package as an alternative, the President has insisted that he "will not settle." Despite the fact that Biden has said he won't give up and that he does hope to win Republican support after all, Democrats have gone the safe route by creating the means to push the budget through without compromising with Republicans.
Before finishing its session this morning, the Senate approved amendments to the budget outline as well, which means that the House must also vote again to accept the Senate's changes. The amendments will ultimately become guidelines for developing the actual aid bill over the course of February. According to reports, lawmakers are set to hold a procedural vote this afternoon. The House hopes to pass its bill within two weeks.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that the Senate passage of the resolution was a "giant first step" towards passing the comprehensive COVID aid bill that Biden has promised. "I am so thankful that our caucus stayed together in unity," he stated following the vote. "We had no choice given the problems facing America and the desire to move forward. And we have moved forward." He has claimed that, despite pushback from Republicans, this is an entirely bipartisan effort.
While not significantly, this bill proposal does differ from previous ones pushed through during the Trump administration. Prior bills passed provided much less funding and went out to fewer people. These bills also did not prioritize giving aid to individual people and families in America who have suffered from job loss, unemployment, lack of rent cancellation, and more. Despite the original promise of $2,000 stimulus checks, individuals instead received $600 checks in January — only the second round of financial aid provided to people during the entire pandemic. This bill specifically prioritizes putting the rest of the payment — $1,400 — into people's wallets as soon as possible.
Should the relief bill officially pass the Democratic-led House, funds would be distributed to individuals, government agencies, and companies. "As we all know, a budget is a statement of our values," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. "Next week, we will be writing the legislation to create a path to final passage for the Biden American Rescue Plan, so that we can finish our work before the end of February."