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Senate facing series of politically tough votes amid Covid relief push

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The Senate is bracing for a series of politically tough amendment votes Friday that could stretch late into the night and into Saturday, the last major hurdle senators face before voting on President Joe Biden’s sweeping pandemic relief bill, even as lawmakers are still debating whether to make more changes to the legislation before sending it back to the House.

The long series of amendment votes, known as a vote-a-rama, is a Senate tradition that the minority party uses to put members of the majority on the record on controversial issues in an effort to make changes to a bill that they oppose.

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The amendments can alter the parameters of the bill, including who ultimately gets aid and how much. While most changes are expected to fail or be stripped out, at least one amendment is being negotiated to get through: lowering the weekly federal boost to unemployment insurance in the bill from $400 to $300. The Democrats’ agreement would extend unemployment benefits through September — as opposed to through August, as had been originally proposed — though Republicans have offered a similar proposal extending jobless benefits only through July.

It’s unclear if either of those changes has the 50 votes it would need to advance, and the debate has slowed floor action Friday afternoon while senators negotiate on and off the floor.

Democrats see test of unity on minimum wage and jobless benefits

Friday’s amendment votes are already a major test of Democratic unity at a time when Senate Democratic leaders have no margin of error given the 50-50 partisan split of the chamber, where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaking vote.

Senate Democrats are under pressure to support the relief legislation, which has undergone some major changes in the Senate after the House passed the bill last week. But they split over the first vote Friday to raise the minimum wage to $15 a hour, an amendment introduced by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and the fight over jobless benefits has brought the floor action to a halt for hours.

Eight senators in the Democratic conference — Jon Tester of Montana, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Angus King of Maine, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and Chris Coons and Tom Carper of Delaware — opposed the minimum wage amendment, along with every Republican senator.

The measure is on track to fail 42-58, though as of 3 p.m. ET, the vote was still open as negotiations continued about scheduling the upcoming amendment votes, including on how long federal enhancements to jobless benefits should last.

Republican leaders are urging their colleagues to fall in line behind Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s alternative jobless benefits extension through July, arguing that doing so could help pare back — or potentially scuttle — the overall relief bill, according to GOP sources familiar with the matter.

The amendment extending benefits through September would be introduced by Carper.

That agreement also would create new tax benefits for people who received unemployment insurance by making the first $10,200 in those benefits not taxable. The intent is to make sure people who received the aid are not hit with taxes on the benefit, which could come as a surprise. The amendment will also include an extension of tax rules regarding excess business loss limitations for one more year. These provisions are new and different than the House bill, which includes $400 a week of benefits through August.

Sanders railed against those who voted against his minimum wage amendment.

“If any Senator believes this is the last time they will cast a vote on whether or not to give a raise to 32 million Americans, they are sorely mistaken,” tweeted Sanders.

Republicans are eager to try to exploit any divisions within the majority party.

“On the positive side, it’s a chance to vote on some things that you wouldn’t get to vote on in the normal course of business,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters when asked to sum up the vote-a-rama process for those unfamiliar. “It’s a chance to see how the parties approach a particular issue, the good thing. The other side of the story is, it’s kind of stupid.”

Given the changes the Senate has made to the bill, it will have to go back to the House of Representatives for another vote next week before it can proceed to Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

Votes follow overnight reading

The Senate’s marathon effort to pass the $1.9 trillion legislation kicked into high gear Thursday when senators voted to open debate, and in a sign of just how thin Democrats’ majority is, Harris broke the tie advancing the bill. But Republicans opposed to the legislation have been taking steps to draw out the process, starting with forcing the 628-page bill to be read aloud.

Under the protocols surrounding the bill, the Senate had up to 20 hours for debate, followed by the vote-a-rama. However, following the conclusion of the bill’s reading around 2 a.m. ET Friday, Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland rose to ask for a unanimous agreement that the Senate come back at 9 a.m. ET and when they did, only three hours of debate be had before they moved to the vote-a-rama. Because no Republican stood in the chamber and objected , the motion was agreed to, chopping off 17 possible more hours of debate time.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, criticized Republican tactics to slow down the process on Thursday, saying that forcing the full reading of the bill “will merely delay the inevitable” and vowing that “no matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week.”

Schumer on Friday thanked the Senate floor staff for the nearly 11 hours of reading the bill, calling them “the unsung heroes of this place.”

“As for our friend from Wisconsin, I hope he enjoyed his Thursday evening,” Schumer said, a reference to GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin who forced the out-loud reading and was not in the Senate when it finished early Friday morning.

Multiple GOP members and aides familiar with the planning told CNN earlier this week that the plan is to try to peel off Democratic members on a few key amendment votes in order to demonstrate differences within the Democratic ranks as well as create some ripe-for-campaign moments that can be made into political ads later on.

Asked how long it could last, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said, “It’s indefinite. You’ve got lots of people who want to offer lots of amendments.”

“I think we’ve got very good amendments on the issues of the day,” Graham told reporters when asked to explain the strategy. “I’m just focusing on getting the best foot forward in terms of how we would do this differently, what we would do with your money as the American people and what we believe Covid relief should consist of.”

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Friday.

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