Kamala Harris broke a tie in the US Senate on Thursday after the upper chamber of Congress split along party lines over whether to proceed with a debate on Joe Biden’s $1.9tn coronavirus relief package.
All 50 Senate Republicans voted against moving ahead with the sweeping stimulus package, necessitating a tiebreaking vote from Harris, the vice-president, which triggered the starting gun on the upper chamber’s formal consideration of the bill.
The stimulus, the flagship of Biden’s legislative agenda, needs to pass the Senate and the House of Representatives before it is sent to the president’s desk to be signed into law.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, earlier on Thursday pledged to pass the relief package in the coming days.
“No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week,” Schumer said. “The American people deserve nothing less.”
The House, which is controlled by Democrats, last week passed the sweeping economic stimulus package in a party-line vote.
The second-largest stimulus package in US history includes means-tested $1,400 payments for American adults, an extension of federal top-ups for unemployment insurance, and $350bn in funding for state and local governments.
But the bill is now being scrutinised by the Senate, which is split, 50-50, between Democrats and Republicans, and where a handful of moderate Democrats now exert outsized influence on their caucus.
Biden and Democratic leaders reached a compromise on Wednesday to satisfy the demands of moderate Democrats. The deal limits eligibility for stimulus cheques to American adults earning less than $80,000 a year.
Under the agreement, adults earning less than $75,000 and couples making up to $150,000 will receive the full $1,400 cheques, with the size of the payments scaled back for individuals earning up to $80,000 and couples making up to $160,000.
According to a Senate Democratic aide, the Democrats’ amendment to the House bill would also increase the value of the federal Cobra health insurance programme from 85 to 100 per cent to help people who lost their jobs retain health insurance.
The amendment also includes another $510m to support the homeless and low-income people facing eviction, and expands tax credits for start-ups and businesses struggling in the coronavirus pandemic.
Democrats are still on track to pass the legislation before their self-imposed deadline of March 14, when the current federal unemployment benefits run out.
But their plans hit a stumbling block on Wednesday when Ron Johnson, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, slowed down the process by demanding Senate staffers read the more than 600-page bill aloud — an exercise that could take up to 10 hours, on top of the 20 hours already allotted to debate the bill and any proposed amendments.
Johnson formally objected after Thursday’s procedural vote, triggering the lengthy reading.
“I feel bad for the clerks that are going to have to read it, but it’s just important,” Johnson told reporters on Capitol Hill earlier on Thursday.
“So often, we rush these massive bills that are hundreds if not thousands of pages long. You don’t, nobody has time to read them,” he said. “At a minimum, somebody ought to read it.”
Schumer said Johnson was making “himself the face of the Republican opposition to the bill”.
“We all know this will merely delay the inevitable,” he added. “It will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks.”
Republicans have taken issue with the size and scope of the stimulus package, and slammed Democrats for using budget reconciliation — a process that sidesteps the filibuster and allows legislation to pass via a simple majority, rather than 60 votes in the 100-member chamber — rather than hashing out a bipartisan deal.
“Democrats are trying to exploit the last chapters of the crisis to pass what president Biden’s chief of staff calls ‘the most progressive domestic legislation in a generation’,” Mitch McConnell, Schumer’s Republican counterpart, said on Thursday. “And they have told Republicans: take it or leave it.”