Senate passes COVID-19 plan, clearing way for nearly $2 trillion in relief

The Senate passed a version of President Biden’s COVID-19 relief package, moving forward with the legislation containing nearly $2 trillion in benefits. The bill passed Saturday afternoon along party lines and will go to the House for a final vote.

Senate Democrats used the process of budget reconciliation to pass the bill with just 50 votes, circumventing the legislative filibuster that would have required 10 Republicans to sign on as well. Democrats in Congress had set March 14 as the deadline for delivering the bill for Biden’s signature, the date when expanded unemployment benefits for millions of Americans are set to expire.

Despite some changes to the bill from the House version that infuriated progressives, it is expected to pass before reaching Biden’s desk. Vice President Kamala Harris did not have to cast the tiebreaking vote, as Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan was absent to attend a family funeral.

“The American Rescue Plan will go down as one of the most sweeping federal recovery efforts in history,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said shortly before final passage, adding that he wanted the American people to know “help is on the way. That their government is going to give them one final push to get us over the finish line.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement after the bill passed that the House will vote Tuesday on the Senate’s version.

Biden lauded the bill’s passage at the White House on Saturday and said stimulus checks will start going to households this month.

“When we took office 45 days ago, I promised the American people help was on the way,” Biden said. “Today I can say we’ve taken one more giant step forward in delivering on that promise, that help is on the way. Everything in this package is designed to relieve the suffering and to meet the most urgent needs of the nation and put us in a better position to prevail.”

After voting on amendments began late Friday morning, the process was delayed for hours over a disagreement on federal unemployment insurance benefits after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., pushed to decrease both the size of the weekly payments and how long they lasted. Eventually, Democrats settled on a plan that would extend the $300 per week benefits (reduced from $400) through Sept. 6 while providing tax relief on the first $10,200 in unemployment benefits for households making up to $150,000. There are concerns about those benefits drying up with Congress in August recess and unable to extend them.