Senate nears COVID-19 relief bill votes as Dems push ahead without GOP support

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The Senate on Friday steered toward a voting marathon on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that’s expected to end with the chamber’s approval of the measure.

The chamber reconvened at 9 a.m. EST, just hours after completing the massive task of reading aloud the entire 628-page bill into the early morning. The roughly half-day delay followed Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote to advance the relief package, and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s objection that forced clerks to read out the full legislation.

Now, the Senate is slated to debate the bill for three hours before considering a number of amendments, which could require a marathon voting session. Republicans are expected to use procedural maneuvers to slow the process.

A final vote on the chamber’s version of the bill may extend into the weekend. And if approved, the bill will have to be sent back to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives for final passage.

Democrats hope Biden can sign the bill into law before March 14, when some of the current benefits run out.

On Thursday, Democratic leaders made more than a dozen late additions to the bill that aims to alleviate some of the fallout from the pandemic that has killed more than 520,000 in the U.S. The legislation includes funding for vaccines and medical supplies, extends jobless assistance and provides a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments.

Democratic senators have tweaked the measure to ensure all of their 50 members would support in, steering more aid to smaller states and adding money for infrastructure projects. But efforts by some senators to alter temporary federal unemployment benefits failed.

The Senate bill keeps the House plan for $400 per-week payments through Aug. 29. It was unclear whether any senators would try to change that figure, possibly to $300, during the amendment process in coming days.

“The time is now to move forward with big, bold, strong relief for the American people,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has promised to keep the Senate at work until the bill is passed.

Republicans, who broadly backed COVID-19 relief spending early in the pandemic, have criticized the bill’s price tag.

Sen. Johnson told reporters he was forcing the bill’s reading to “shine the light on this abusive and obscene amount of money. ”

Schumer said Johnson would “accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks.”

Republican Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, called the package a “big, bloated, wasteful bill,” saying larger states like California, New York and Illinois received the lion’s share of the aid.

“You’ve got taxpayers in places like South Dakota and North Carolina and Georgia and other places around the country that essentially are writing checks to states which really aren’t needed,” Thune told PBS.

In the Senate, bills usually require the support of 60 senators. But the coronavirus relief bill is being advanced under a legislative maneuver known as reconciliation that allows passage with a simple majority vote.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report. Reporting by AP’s Alan Fram and Reuters’ Susan Cornwell and Makini Brice.

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