- Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer thanked Senate staff for enduring the early-morning ordeal and added, "As for our friend from Wisconsin, I hope he enjoyed his Thursday evening."
- Schumer was referring to Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who insisted that the text of the bill be read aloud.
WASHINGTON: A sharply divided US Senate on Friday accelerated its march toward passage of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, as it began what was expected to be a long debate over a slew of amendments on how that money would be spent.
Following a night in which Senate clerks spent nearly 11 hours reading every word of the 628-page Democratic bill, partisan fevers were on display in the closing hours of debate that will then open the bill to amendments that are likely to offered into the weekend.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer thanked Senate staff for enduring the early-morning ordeal and added, "As for our friend from Wisconsin, I hope he enjoyed his Thursday evening."
Schumer was referring to Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who insisted that the text of the bill be read aloud.
At the start of Friday's session, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent aligned with Democrats, steered the debate to his crusade for a federal minimum wage increase, despite a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian that it cannot be considered under special rules governing this massive emergency spending bill.
Sanders' bid to raise what he called a "starvation wage" of $7.25 an hour to $15 over five years was expected to fail, with Democrats pledging to pursue it in future legislation.
As Congress raced to approve the economic stimulus bill, the US Labor Department said US employment surged in February, adding 379,000 jobs, significantly higher than many economists had expected.
The US unemployment rate, while still high at 6.2% last month, was down from 6.3% in January.
But Schumer stressed that with millions of jobs still lost to the pandemic and people struggling to pay their rents, Washington had to act aggressively.
"Sometimes the macro statistics get in the way. The top-end (of Americans) is doing very well ... But so many other people are struggling," he said.
With Senate Republicans so far moving in lock-step against the bill, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the legislation "a poorly-targeted rush job," adding, "Our country is already set for a roaring recovery. We are already on track to bounce back from this crisis" without the fresh stimulus money.
If the Senate approves the bill, it will have to be sent back to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives for final passage. Democrats hope Biden can sign the bill into law before March 14, when some of the current benefits run out.
With no votes to spare, Senate Democrats have tweaked the measure to ensure all 50 of their members would support it. Those changes would steer more aid to smaller US states and add money for infrastructure projects, among other adjustments.
But efforts by some senators to alter temporary federal unemployment benefits failed. The Senate bill keeps the House plan for $400 per-week payments through Aug. 29. Senators are likely to try to change that figure, possibly to $300, during the amendment process.
Republicans, who broadly backed COVID-19 relief spending early in the pandemic, have criticized the bill's price tag.
The relief legislation includes funding for vaccines and medical supplies, extends jobless assistance and provides a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments. Opinion polls indicate broad public support.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday tightened criteria for stimulus checks so fewer high-income households would qualify.
The compromise means that 9 million fewer households would receive a stimulus payment than in the last tranche of payouts in 2020. It also lowers the cost of the legislation by $12 billion, according to Senate Democrats. On Thursday, they said they had increased minimum payments to states with smaller rural populations to match the $1.25 billion minimum contained in last year's CARES Act. The bill passed by the House set the floor at $500 million.
The pandemic has killed nearly 520,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work, although infection rates have eased in recent weeks.
Democrats also included $10 billion for infrastructure, $8.5 billion for health providers and expanded healthcare subsidies for those who lose their jobs.
In the Senate, bills usually require the support of 60 senators. But the coronavirus relief bill is being advanced under a legislative maneuver known as reconciliation that allows passage with a simple majority vote.