Senate Approves $1.9T Virus Relief Plan With Changes

By Andrew Kragie
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Law360 (March 7, 2021, 12:03 PM EST) -- The Senate voted along party lines Saturday to approve Democrats' sprawling $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package after making changes to provisions related to minimum wage, health insurance, pensions, broadband, student loans and entertainment venues.

The American Rescue Plan Act passed the Senate on a 50-49 vote Saturday afternoon after more than 24 straight hours of amendment votes and intense negotiations. It marks the second-largest stimulus package in American history. House leaders say the lower chamber will vote Tuesday to approve the Senate's changes and send the bill to President Joe Biden.

"Help is on the way," Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor Saturday. "This bill will deliver more help to more people than anything the federal government has done in decades."

"The pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of American life," he said. "So this bill spans the gamut and provides support to every part of our country."

Republicans were unanimous in opposition. The party mostly supported $3.4 trillion of relief spending in three packages last year but decried this bill as wasteful and misguided as the economy shows some signs of recovery.

"The Senate has never spent $2 trillion in a more haphazard or less rigorous way," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Saturday on the Senate floor. "Democrats decided their top priority wasn't pandemic relief. It was their Washington wish-list. It was jamming through unrelated policy changes they couldn't pass honestly."

The package's most expensive components include $1,400 stimulus checks costing about $420 billion; $350 billion in aid to state and local governments; nearly $250 billion to boost unemployment benefits; some $170 billion for schools and universities; about $160 billion for individual and corporate tax credits; and around $125 billion for vaccines, testing and public health. Those figures from the nongovernmental Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget may not reflect certain changes in the Senate.

The upper chamber dropped the $15 minimum wage from the version the House approved Feb. 27. The Senate parliamentarian had ruled that the provision was not eligible for the fast track reserved for budget measures, and a last-minute attempt to restore it failed Friday with eight members of the Democratic caucus joining Republicans in opposition.

Benefits provisions would spend over $80 billion to rescue struggling union pension plans and extend deadlines for single-employer plans, which drew some opposition from retirees' advocates and from Republicans who questioned its inclusion in a pandemic relief bill. The Senate altered that section to let employers decide whether to apply changes retroactively. It also added a six-month provision to have the federal government fully cover COBRA health insurance premiums for laid-off workers.

Senate Democrats changed the bill to allow states, tribes and local governments to spend their $350 billion in aid on broadband, in addition to directly pandemic-related expenses. That money will be available through 2024.

Another Democratic change means that student loan forgiveness, which normally raises taxable income, would go untaxed from 2021 through 2025.

Another tweak allowed independent entertainment venues to accept government help through both the "Save Our Stages" program and the Paycheck Protection Program.

One of the four Senate amendments approved on the floor was a bipartisan plan to extend for six months a CARES Act provision that lets federal contractors pay employees unable to perform work due to the pandemic. The $2 trillion CARES Act approved a year ago is the only stimulus package larger than this one.

Senators voted on about 35 amendments, mostly unsuccessful Republican proposals, in the "vote-a-rama" that started 11 a.m. Friday and stretched through the night until after noon Saturday.

The absence of Sen. Dan Sullivan — an Alaska Republican who left town for a family emergency — meant Vice President Kamala Harris did not have to break ties as the evenly divided chamber considered the package under special budget reconciliation rules that prevent filibusters and allow passage with a simple majority.

Despite some concern about a progressive revolt over Senate changes, House leaders vowed to quickly approve the amended bill and send it to Biden's desk before the March 14 expiration of jobless benefits approved in December's $900 billion package.

"This bill helps so many people in such a direct way at a critical time," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday. "I cannot believe that the people who voted to send it to the Senate will not also vote to pass it and send it to the president for his signature."

--Additional reporting by Stephen Cooper and Emily Brill. Editing by Alyssa Miller.

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