(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden made public appeals on Friday for passage of his $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief bill, meeting with potential recipients of stimulus checks and highlighting continuing damage in the labor market. The Senate meantime was stalled in considering amendments to the bill.
Negotiations among senators continued on the details of supplemental jobless benefits, though lawmakers still expect the legislation to pass in the chamber over the weekend.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledged the Senate will "power through" the arduous final process of getting Biden's first signature piece of legislation passed. The Senate is embroiled in the amendment-proposal stage known as the vote-a-rama. The House will need to vote on the Senate's version, with Democratic leaders pledging final passage by March 14, when current supplemental jobless benefits expire.
Biden Appeals for Passage of His Aid Bill
Biden met at the White House with his economic team to highlight how the latest monthly jobs report showcases a still-damage labor market a year into the Covid-19 crisis, along with hosting a meeting with people who would be getting stimulus checks under the pending pandemic-aid bill.
Biden was joined by a Maryland woman who works providing transit to disabled individuals, a self-employed veteran from Washington, D.C., who lost his home to a fire and a representative from Mary's Center -- a health care, social services and education resource center.
"It's going to make a big difference in terms of their lives," Biden said. "People in the country are hurting right now, with less than two weeks from enhanced unemployment checks being cut out."
Biden earlier highlighted that the economy still has more than 9 million fewer jobs now than in February last year. "At that rate it would take two years to get back on track."
"We can't afford one step forward, two steps backward," he said in appealing for passage of his stimulus. "People need the help now." -- Justin Sink
Senate Voting Stalls Amid Talks on Jobless Aid (3:27 p.m.)
While Senate Democrats had looked to have nailed down a deal on the amount and duration of supplemental unemployment benefits earlier in the day, talks continued Friday afternoon, with GOP involvement.
The negotiations held up the marathon of votes on amendments for more than three hours Friday afternoon.
Democrats continue to work within their caucus to make sure that none of their members would go along with Republican amendments that could sink the bill in the House. Chief among the issues: unemployment insurance benefits.
Earlier in the day, a Democratic agreement was unveiled to reduce weekly supplemental jobless benefits to $300 per week -- from $400 in the House-passed legislation -- and extend it through Oct. 4, compared with the end of August.
The deal including making $10,200 worth of jobless benefits tax-free.
Republican senators said Democrats are still working to line up support for that deal and to ward off an amendment from Ohio Republican Rob Portman to make the benefit $300 a week through July 18. It doesn't address the tax issue.
"They are worried about losing on Portman," John Thune, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, said.
Key to the outcome could be West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who has argued for stricter targeting of pandemic relief.
Texas Senator John Cornyn predicted Senate would pass the stimulus bill Saturday morning. -- Erik Wasson.
Sanders Bid to Restore Wage Hike Falls Short (2:42 p.m.)
A last-ditch effort by Senator Bernie Sanders to restore a minimum-wage hike to the pandemic-relief bill is headed to defeat with 42 votes in favor and 58 against.
The vote hasn't been made final, though there is almost no chance it would change. It remained open while Democrats attempted to nail down support for their plan to extend supplemental unemployment through September.
The Senate parliamentarian had previously ruled that the phased-in increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 fell afoul of budget-reconciliation rules, which Democrats are using to get the Covid-19 aid bill through the Senate with just a simple majority vote.
Sanders's bid to waive the rules and restore the wage hike would have required 60 senators of 100 senators to agree to go along with the amendment. But it failed to get even a majority.
"An unelected staffer in the Senate should not be in charge of determining whether 32 million workers in America receive a raise," Sanders said on the Senate floor.
There wasn't even majority support within the Democratic caucus. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema was among the Democrats who voted against it, saying the chamber should look at the issue separate from the relief legislation.
"The Senate should hold an open debate and amendment process on raising the minimum wage, separate from the Covid-focused reconciliation bill," Sinema said in a statement.
Also voting against the attempt were Democratic senators Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, Jeanne Shaheen, Maggie Hassan, Tom Carper and Chris Coons as well as independent Angus King.
Biden has called on lawmakers to move ahead with his proposed wage hike on a standalone basis. -- Erik Wasson
White House Sees Bill Speeding Job Recovery by a Year (11:08 a.m.)
Biden's $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan will accelerate the U.S.'s return to full employment by a year, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said.
"Most people say that this bill would pull forward by about a year the length of time it would take to get back to full," Deese said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Friday. He declined to make more specific predictions about unemployment.
A government report earlier Friday showed that total U.S. payrolls in February remained more than 9 million lower than the peak prior to the pandemic. Biden said Friday the report showed his stimulus legislation is "urgently needed."
Deese added that the administration is working to speed up the delivery of stimulus checks that are a key feature of the aid bill that Congress is expected to pass in coming days.
White House economist Heather Boushey, also speaking in an interview, underscored that economic recovery will depend heavily on the distribution of coronavirus vaccines.
"Just to state the obvious, this all depends on getting shots in arms," she said. -- Jennifer Jacobs
Senate Democrats Resolve Differences Over Jobless Aid (11:03 a.m.)
Senate Democrats have resolved differences over the level and duration of supplemental unemployment benefits in the pandemic relief bill, according to a Democratic aide.
The bonus will be kept at the current level of $300 a week, rather than the $400 provided in the House version of the bill, but they will last until Oct. 4 -- rather than the end of August, the aide said. Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, a close Biden ally, led the talks and will offer the amendment to make the change.
The White House supported the compromise. Press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that Biden believes "it is critical to extend expanded unemployment benefits through the end of September."
Recipients will get tax forgiveness on $10,200 worth of benefits under the deal, according to the aide.
For millions of unemployed Americans who were able to receive enhanced federal jobless benefits, the change would eliminate their obligation to pay Internal Revenue Service levies on the first $10,200 of those payments.
That tax forbearance will offer major help. Unemployment benefits, unlike stimulus payments, are subject to federal income taxes. Many states don't withhold taxes when they make the payments, so recipients will be required to pay those levies when they file their tax return this spring. That means that the millions of workers who received unemployment benefits could face large, unanticipated tax bills.
The deal would also expand a tax provision from the GOP 2017 tax law that restricts how businesses losses can be carried forward to offset future-year profits through 2026. The provision was initially implemented through 2025.
In past economic crises, Congress has approved tax relief to help unemployed individuals. In 2009, lawmakers waived taxes on up to $2,400 in jobless benefits. -- Erik Wasson, Laura Davison
Senate Begins Debate as Schumer Pledges to Power Through (9:30 a.m.)
The Senate reconvened Friday morning for three hours of debate on the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan ahead of a marathon series of amendment votes expected to last through the night.
The first amendment to get a vote will be offered by progressive Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, who has said he will attempt to amend the bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. That amendment is subject to an objection, since the parliamentarian has ruled it against budget rules, and 60 senators would have to vote to add it to the bill. Some moderate Democrats are expected to vote against the amendment, arguing that it would sink the bill by allowing the entire package to be filibustered by Republicans.
While many of the Republican amendment votes are expected to be designed to cause political damage to Democrats and have no chance of succeeding, others may go through.
"They are dead-set on ramming through a partisan spending spree packed with non-Covid related policies" said Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell on Friday on the Senate floor. "This isn't a pandemic-rescue package, this is a parade of left-wing pet projects."
McConnell said the economy is "already on track to bounce back from this crisis," because of last year's bipartisan virus-relief packages, not because of the $1.9 trillion bill before the Senate this week.
"Republicans have many ideas to improve the bill, many ideas, and we are about to vote on all kinds of amendments in the hope that some of these ideas make it into the final product," McConnell said.
For amendments that are in order under budget rules -- such as one to cut supplemental unemployment benefits from the $400 per week in the bill -- it would only take one Democrat to side with 50 Republicans to make the change.
"We are going to power through and finish this bill however long it takes," Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Friday. "We are not going to make the same mistake we did after the last economic downturn, when Congress did too little." -- Erik Wasson
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