WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — U.S. Senate Democrats were taking the first step on Thursday toward President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan through the passage of a budget resolution, as they voted on a series of amendments in a marathon “vote-a-rama” session that could last into the night.
None of the amendments are binding if passed. They are prescriptive, like the budget resolution itself, which instructs committees to get to work writing COVID-19 legislation. But Republicans seized the chance to get lawmakers on the record on contentious issues, and won some of them. Here are several of their proposals:
NO COVID-19 FUNDS FOR SCHOOLS THAT DO NOT REOPEN AFTER TEACHERS VACCINATED
Senators Roy Blunt and Tim Scott wanted to withhold additional funding from schools that do not reopen for in-person learning after teachers have had the chance to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Their motion failed by the narrowest of margins, with 50 senators voting for and 50 against, short of a majority.
Schools across the United States are struggling with when to reopen after having largely shifted to remote learning during the pandemic. In Chicago, where teachers are not getting vaccinated yet, the teachers’ unions are resisting reopening.
PROHIBIT STIMULUS CHECKS TO ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS
Senators Todd Young and Tom Cotton favor prohibiting any direct stimulus payments, such as the $1,400 checks Biden proposed, from being distributed to illegal immigrants. Their amendment passed on a bipartisan vote of 58-42. Republicans got eight Democrats to vote with them.
Posts on social media claimed that illegal immigrants got such checks previously, but only Americans with Social Security numbers could receive the aid.
NO TAX INCREASES ON SMALL BUSINESSES DURING THE PANDEMIC
Senators Marco Rubio, James Lankford and Scott proposed an amendment to protect small businesses from tax increases during the pandemic. Their motion passed unanimously, 100-0.
“There are no taxes on small business in this proposal,” Senator Bernie Sanders said ahead of the vote, referring to Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan.
Biden wants to raise taxes on people with incomes over $400,000 a year, but it is unclear whether some small businesses organized as sole proprietorships could be caught up in such a tax increase.
REDUCE FUNDING TO STATES THAT MAY HAVE UNDER-REPORTED PANDEMIC DEATHS AT NURSING HOMES
Senators John Barrasso, Scott and Lankford would reduce COVID-19 funding to states that may have under-reported deaths at nursing homes during the pandemic. It was not agreed to, falling on a tie vote of 50-50.
New York state’s health department may have undercounted the COVID-19 death toll among state nursing home residents by as much as 50%, according to a report released by the state attorney general’s office last week.
RELIEVE MOBILE AND REMOTE PANDEMIC WORKERS OF EXTRA TAX BILLS
Senator John Thune’s proposal would ensure that medical professionals who traveled across the country to help fight the pandemic do not face increased state income tax bills because they worked in a state other than their ordinary place of employment. Thune’s own state of South Dakota does not have a state income tax. The Senate agreed to his proposal on a voice vote.
What it means for COVID-19 relief
Senate Democrats need to pass a budget resolution to unlock a legislative tool called reconciliation, which would allow them to approve Biden’s proposal in the narrowly divided chamber with a simple majority. The House of Representatives approved the budget measure on Wednesday.
Most legislation must get at least 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to pass. But the chamber is divided 50-50 and Republicans oppose the Democratic president’s proposal. Reconciliation would allow the Senate’s 48 Democrats and two independents to approve the relief package with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.
Senate Democrats and the Biden administration have left the door open to Republican participation but have said they want comprehensive legislation to move quickly to address a pandemic that has killed more than 450,000 Americans and left millions jobless.
Earlier this week, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said new growth forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office showed the United States “desperately” needs Congress to act on President Joe Biden’s coronavirus rescue package.
“Last year, the economy shrunk more than any other since the end of World War II. With the growth that the CBO projects, it will be years before the country reaches full employment again,” Yellen said in a statement, issued after speaking with Senate Democrats on Tuesday about Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
The Democrats’ march to add more assistance to last year’s $4 trillion in coronavirus relief could be complicated by the impeachment trial of Republican former President Donald Trump, which is set to begin next week and could distract from the legislation.
Once adopted, the budget resolution would provide spending instructions to House and Senate committees charged with crafting COVID-19 relief legislation, which is likely to take weeks.
Congress would then take up the bill for passage under the reconciliation tool. Democrats say they are determined to pass the legislation before enhanced unemployment payments expire in mid-March.
The reconciliation measure does not require the president’s signature to take effect. If the Senate passes it without amendments, it will take effect immediately. If any amendments pass, the package would return to the House, which would need to vote on it again.
In a show of bipartisanship, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledged that consideration of the budget resolution would be open to amendments from both parties in the process known informally as a “vote-a-rama.”
“I sincerely hope our Republican colleagues approach our work today with the intention of having serious ideas considered, not using the debate over pandemic relief to sharpen ephemeral partisan talking points,” the New York Democrat said on the Senate floor.
Republican lawmakers have said they could offer up to 20 amendments.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, decrying what he called “this phony partisan budget,” said Republicans would offer amendments to reverse the “job killing” cancellation of the Keystone pipeline and block a higher minimum wage, stimulus checks for illegal immigrants and tax hikes on businesses during the pandemic.
Reporting by David Morgan, Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney, Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall.
Reuters contributed to this report.