Senate Passes COVID-19 Relief Bill

Photo courtesy of Senate Television (via AP).

By Terrance Turner

March 6, 2021

By a 50-49 vote, the Senate has passed President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill.

The legislation, known as the American Rescue Act, passed around 11:30 am — without any Republican support. (Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, was absent for the vote because of a family emergency, according to NBC News.) Democrats advanced the package through the budget reconciliation process, meaning it did not require any Republican support to pass. However, that process prevented Democrats from including a provision to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour in the legislation. The Senate parliamentarian ruled last month that the wage increase could not be a part of the bill.

There was high drama on Capitol Hill as the legislation was prepared. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) sparked a minor panic yesterday when he expressed reservation about the unemployment checks. In the end, Democrats — with virtually no room for error — compromised to get his support. Instead of $400 a week through the end of September, the checks will be $300 a week through Sept. 6. After uniting against the bill, Senate Republicans forced dozens of votes overnight into Saturday on amendments in an effort to stall the process.

The bill’s passage came after a marathon session by lawmakers. According to the Associated Press, the Senate had been in session since 9 a.m. EST Friday. But after hours and hours of debate and negotiations, the $1.9 trillion bill passed. It next heads to the House for final approval. If that occurs, the bill will be signed into law by President Joe Biden, marking his first major legislative victory as president.

“This bill will deliver more help to more people than anything the federal government has done in decades,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said just before final passage. “This is the most progressive [legislation] in a generation,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The massive relief package provides $1,400 checks to Americans making up to $75,000 a year. For married couples who file their taxes jointly, both would qualify for the full amount if they make up to $150,000 jointly, per NBC News. (Couples would therefore get $2,800.) MSNBC’s Kyle Griffin adds that the package also includes an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit. Additionally, there’s a permanent increase of $130 million/year for child care assistance.

According to Axios, the bill’s highlights include:

  • Expanded federal funding for COVID programs, including $46 billion for testing and tracing; $7.6 billion for pandemic response at community health centers; $5.2 billion to support research, development and manufacturing of vaccines, therapeutics and other medical products; and $7.7 billion to expand the public health care workforce.
  • $1,400 stimulus payments for most Americans.
  • $128.6 billion to help K-12 schools reopen.
  • $350 billion in state and local aid.
  • $25 billion in aid to restaurants and other food and drinking establishments.
  • $19 billion in emergency rental assistance.
  • $7.25 billion in funds for Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In the wake of the successful passage of this legislation, many observers are thanking Stacey Abrams. After a narrow loss in Georgia’s governor race, Abrams launched Fair Fight 2018, a voting rights organization to promote fair elections around the country. Fair Fight encourages voter participation and educates voters about their rights. The organization raised $34.5 million in just 39 days from late October to the last week of November, funneling a large chunk of the money into helping Democratic candidates, per the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

It was Abrams’ efforts that helped re-enfranchise Georgia voters. Vox credited her with helping a record surge of Georgia voters to the polls in November. “Abrams’s group Fair Fight and other voting rights groups like the New Georgia Project have been putting a ton of effort into registering and turning out Black voters at high rates this year. And those efforts have been successful. The state has already hit record registration levels, with about 7.6 million voters registered. And since early voting started, more than 2.7 million voters have cast ballots — at least 1 million of whom were Black.”

That increase in Black voter turnout helped power the Democrats’ success in Georgia’s Senate elections in January. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won their races, defeating incumbent Republicans. Those two wins put the Senate at a 50-50 tie, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote. This legislation would not have passed if not for those two seats in Georgia (and Abrams’ efforts).

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