U.S. Senate ready to start countdown to budget ‘vote-a-rama’

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate will cast a procedural vote Tuesday afternoon to start debate on its shell budget blueprint for the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer announced on the floor.

The motion requires a simple majority vote to proceed to the budget resolution, which Democrats may have locked up with the return of Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., from quarantine after exposure to an individual with COVID-19.

In a statement Tuesday, a key centrist Democrat made clear he’d vote to move ahead with the budget plan. But West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III also served notice that “our focus must be targeted on the COVID-19 crisis and Americans who have been most impacted by the pandemic.”

Manchin’s words, which he said he also shared with President Joe Biden, were a warning to Democrats not to load up the package with unrelated measures. “I will only support proposals that will get us through and end the pain of this pandemic,” Manchin said.

And he said he opposes a provision of the plan, and a key priority for incoming Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15. “No I’m not” in favor, Manchin said about raising the wage to $15. “I’m supporting basically having something that’s responsible and reasonable. In my state that would be $11.”

In his opening floor remarks, Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was “optimistic that the motion to proceed will pass.” If the motion is adopted, it will start the required 50-hour clock for debate, followed by the infamous “vote-a-rama” process that can include dozens of amendments, late into the evening.

The House is voting on its virtually identical blueprint on Wednesday, though the chamber will have to vote again on final adoption, possibly this weekend, of the joint budget resolution after additions made by the Senate.

The Senate budget plan includes reconciliation instructions to 11 authorizing committees to write their portions of a bill based on Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package.

But it’s also apparent that Democrats want to go beyond the outlines of the pandemic rescue plan proposed by Biden. A release from Sanders, I-Vt., mentions action on shoring up multiemployer pension plans as being potentially part of the legislation, for example, in addition to raising the minimum wage, increasing unemployment benefits and other provisions proposed by Biden. But Manchin’s position would call into question at least the minimum wage proposal.

Democrats need a simple majority to adopt the budget resolution, with Vice President Kamala Harris available to break a tie. Once both chambers have acted on the budget resolution, the process of writing the reconciliation bill can begin. That measure also will only require a simple majority to pass the Senate, rather than the usual 60 votes needed to end debate.

In recent years, reconciliation has been a partisan maneuver employed when the same party controlled Congress and the White House.

Schumer urged Republicans to participate in passing a pandemic relief bill, saying “we welcome your ideas, your input, your revisions.”

“There is nothing about the process of a budget resolution or reconciliation, for that matter, that forecloses the possibility of bipartisanship,” he said.

Since 1980, Schumer added, “the budget process has been used 17 times, 17 times to pass serious bipartisan legislation.” But Schumer also said several times that the Senate will not “dilute, dither or delay.”

“The needs of the American people are so demanding, we need to think big, and we need to act quickly,” he said.

Sanders drew a contrast to successful GOP efforts in the past to cut taxes through reconciliation, including in 2001 and 2003 under President George W. Bush and in 2017 under President Donald Trump.

“If Republicans could use reconciliation to help the wealthy and the powerful, we can use reconciliation to help Americans recover from the worst economic and public health crisis in the modern history of our country,” Sanders said in a statement.

Senate Republicans have urged Democrats to work with them to write a smaller, more targeted package. But Schumer’s comments made clear Democrats are not interested in that approach.

The Senate committees with the largest instructions include Finance, with $1.296 trillion; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, with $305 billion; and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, with $89 billion.

Overall, the reconciliation instructions direct the committees to write legislation that increases the deficit over 10 years by no more than $1.889 trillion.

The other committees and their instructions are:

Agriculture: $23 billion

Commerce, Science and Transportation: $36 billion

Environment and Public Works: $3 billion

Foreign Relations: $10 billion

Homeland Security: $51 billion

Indian Affairs: $9 billion

Small Business: $50 billion

Veterans’ Affairs: $17 billion

The immediate hands-on work will take place in a dozen House committees under that chamber’s reconciliation instructions. Those panels have until Feb. 16 to deliver their recommendations to the House Budget Committee, which will bundle them into one package.