Senate OKs $1.9 Trillion COVID-19 Relief Package

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) celebrates after the Senate narrowly passed the $1.9 trillion relief bill
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) celebrates after the Senate narrowly approved the $1.9 trillion relief package March 6. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

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WASHINGTON — Tensions were raw ahead of midnight March 5 as Republican leader Mitch McConnell rose in the Senate for the purpose of publicly ridiculing Majority Leader Chuck Schumer over the daylong delay as Democrats argued among themselves over the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package that includes billions for transit.

But 12 hours later, it was Schumer (D-N.Y.) reveling in the last word, an unabashedly upbeat “help is on the way” to Americans suffering through the pandemic and lockdowns as the Senate prepared to approve the massive package without a single GOP vote.

Senate passage of the sweeping relief bill March 6 puts President Joe Biden’s top priority closer to becoming law, poised to unleash billions for vaccines, $1,400 direct payments and other aid, and shows Schumer, in his first big test as majority leader, can unify the ever-so-slim Democratic majority and deliver the votes.

“Lessons learned: If we have unity, we can do big things,” Schumer told The Associated Press in an interview after the vote.

The outcome “gives us optimism about doing more big things in the future — because it worked,” he said.

Stewardship of the massive pandemic relief package was an inaugural foray of the new power dynamics of Washington, testing Democratic control of the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade, and setting the foundation for what’s possible for Biden’s agenda.

So much of Biden’s success or failure depends on the Senate, where Democrats are in command of an evenly split chamber, 50-50, a majority so delicate that any one senator can upend the legislative agenda. While Vice President Kamala Harris is able to break tie votes, Schumer has zero slack if Republicans are opposed, voting lockstep as they did March 6 against the virus aid as bloated and unnecessary. One key centrist, Sen. Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va.), wavered over an unemployment provision, throwing the proceedings into chaos before a grueling all-night session.

Biden has been telling senators privately their vote on pandemic aid will build momentum for the next priorities. An ambitious infrastructure package is emerging, part of his “Build Back Better” campaign agenda, to bring roads, broadband and green-energy projects nationwide. He and Schumer spoke often as the Senate leader steered the pandemic aid to approval. It’s now headed back to the House for a final vote, as soon as March 8.

On March 6, Democrats elbow-bumped and cheered in the chamber — Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said some were almost in tears — as they ushered the massive aid package they had promised voters to approval. With 10 million jobs lost and countless schools and businesses shuttered, it includes $300 a week in extra unemployment benefits, money for school reopenings, eviction protections and small business assistance. Senate Democrats said their version would have components similar to the House-passed version that proposed about $30 billion for transit operations and safety protections for workers, $3 billion for the aerospace manufacturing industry, and more than $1 billion for Amtrak.

“Only 45 days after Joe Biden became president of the United States, to be able to do something so big, and so significant, that fundamentally is the glue for us,” she said.

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