Democrats have taken a critical step towards a first major legislative victory since assuming control of Congress and the White House, with a party-line vote in the Senate to approve Joe Biden’s $1.9tn coronavirus relief bill.
After a marathon voting session that lasted through the night on Friday and into Saturday afternoon, Senate Democrats overcame unified Republican opposition to approve the sweeping stimulus package. The final tally was 50-49, with one Republican absent.
One of the largest emergency aid packages in US history now returns to the House for final approval before being rushed to Biden’s desk to be signed. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has said she expects Democrats to approve the measure before 14 March, when tens of millions of Americans risk losing unemployment benefits provided by a previous relief bill if no action is taken.
Biden and Democrats will now look to move on to other priorities, including voting rights reform and an ambitious infrastructure package.
The bill, aimed at combating the Covid-19 pandemic and reviving the struggling US economy, will provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans; extend federal unemployment benefits; rush money to state, local and tribal governments; and allot significant funding to vaccine distribution and testing.
Republicans have attacked the bill as a “liberal wish list” mismatched with an improving economic and public health outlook as more Americans are vaccinated and infections plateau.
“Our country is already set for a roaring recovery,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, on Friday, citing a jobs report that showed 379,000 jobs added in February. “Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.”
But Democrats and the White House were quick to push back, pointing to a painfully high unemployment rate, with more than 9 million Americans out of work and millions more struggling to pay for rent and food.
Calling the measure “one of the largest anti-poverty bills in recent history”, the majority leader Chuck Schumer said the legislation would help those worst hit by the pandemic.
“Sometimes the macro statistics get in the way,” Schumer said in a floor speech on Friday. “The top end is doing very well – the top 10% or 25% – but so many other people are struggling. And if you just look at a big number, you say, everything is getting a little better. It’s not for the lower half of America. It’s not.”
Biden was reportedly due to speak on the subject on Saturday.
Despite deep political polarization and staunch Republican opposition, the legislation has broad public appeal. A poll by Monmouth University found that 62% of Americans approve of the stimulus package, including more than three in 10 Republicans.
Yet the endeavor tested the fragile alliance between progressives and moderates as Democrats attempt to wield their power with only the barest control of Congress.
Early on Friday, the Senate rejected a proposal by the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders to include a $15-an-hour minimum wage increase, a top liberal priority and a key plank of Biden’s economic agenda. The Senate parliamentarian had deemed the provision inadmissible under the rules of a special budget process Democrats are using to bypass Republican opposition.
Despite widespread public support for raising the federal minimum wage, Democrats remain divided over the measure. On Friday, eight joined all Republicans in blocking the amendment, which would have required 60 votes to pass.
“Let me be very clear: we are not giving up on this,” Sanders said. “We are going to come back with vote after vote. And one way or the other we are going to pass a $15 minimum wage. That is what the American people want and that is what the American people need.”
The approval of the bill in the Senate came after hours upon hours of voting on a torrent of amendments, most of which were offered by Republicans with the goal of forcing Democrats to take a position on measures designed to be politically troublesome.
Proceedings had already been much delayed on Thursday, when Republican senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin forced Senate clerks to read the 628-page bill in its entirety – a task that took nearly 11 hours.