WASHINGTON — Senate leaders and moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin struck a deal late Friday over emergency jobless benefits, breaking a nine-hour logjam that had stalled the party’s showpiece $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide, seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes expected to lead to approval of the sweeping legislation.
The overall bill, President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health. It would provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans and money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry and subsidies for health insurance.
While the Senate next faced votes on a pile of amendments that were likely to go overnight, Democratic leaders’ agreement with Manchin suggested it was just a matter of time until the chamber passes the bill. That would ship it back to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval and whisk it to Biden for his signature.
But the day’s lengthy standoff also underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years as they try moving their agenda through Congress with their slender majorities.
Manchin is probably the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, and a kingmaker in a 50-50 Senate that leaves his party without a vote to spare. With Democrats’ slim majorities — they have a mere 10-vote House edge — the party needs his vote but can’t tilt too far center without losing progressive support.
With 10 million fewer jobs since the pandemic struck a year ago, aiding unemployed Americans is a top Democratic priority. But it’s also an issue that drove a divide between progressives seeking to help jobless constituents cope with the bleak economy and Manchin and other moderates who have wanted to trim some of the bill’s costs.
“People in the country are hurting right now, with less than two weeks from enhanced unemployment checks being cut,” Biden said at the White House, referring to the March 14 end to the current round of emergency jobless benefits. He called his bill a “clearly necessary lifeline for getting the upper hand” against the pandemic.
The package faces a solid wall of GOP opposition, and Republicans used the unemployment impasse to accuse Biden of refusing to seek compromise with them.
“You could pick up the phone and end this right now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Biden.
The House version of the relief bill provided $400 weekly jobless benefits — on top of regular state payments — through August. Manchin was hoping to reduce those costs, asserting that level of payment would discourage people from returning to work.
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