It will provide billions for vaccine distribution, and testing and contact tracing of the virus to keep it under control. It will provide direct relief to millions of people in the form of survival checks, expanded unemployment insurance, more housing and food assistance, and more relief for small businesses, including billions for restaurants and bars which haven’t been able to access programs passed to date. Republicans are thus far united in opposition to it. But giving how Johnson’s big plan fizzled out, perhaps they are not so united in forcing it to take as long as possible to pass. “I’m kind of hard pressed to believe that too many people are going to be glued to their TVs to listen to the Senate clerk read page by page,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, of Johnson’s purported reason for the reading delay. “I feel bad for the clerks who are going to have to read it, but it’s important,” Johnson told reporters. He didn’t really feel bad. “At a minimum, somebody ought to read it,” he said. Never mind that voters know enough about it to give it 77% support.
Once the bill passes, it will have to go back to the House to pass there again, because the Senate has made some relatively major changes to the version out of the House. The most substantive changes are removing the $15/hour minimum wage hike; lowering the cap for the $1,400 survival checks to exclude people making more than $80,000/annually (down from $100,000 in the House bill) or joint filers making more than $160,000 (from $200,000 in the House bill); funding for a bridge in New York and a railway system in California. Unfortunately, an effort by Finance Chair Ron Wyden to extend the $400/week unemployment boost through September failed, and it will expire on August 29. But he did successfully fight off the effort by conservative Democrats to reduce that assistance to $300. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is guaranteeing that the Senate will pass the bill, even with those changes that plenty of House progressives oppose.
The tinkering the Senate has done provides more funding to rural hospitals and to expanding broadband—so more for rural states represented by Republicans who are opposing the bill. At least Democrats are looking out for Republican voters, while the Republicans twiddle their thumbs. It will also provide more funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for helping the homeless, and changes the formula for state and local aid to give smaller population states more money than they received under the previous coronavirus response bill, the CARES Act.
It includes $350 billion for state, local, and tribal governments to help cover their budget shortfalls resulting from a year of pandemic, but makes some changes. That funding was altered from the original bill to carve out $10 billion for states to fund “critical capital project,” which would include expanding broadband access. It also puts new restrictions on how that funding can be spent, and will only make half of the funds available at the outset, providing a second tranche of funding next year. The bill also expands some tax credits to startup businesses to help them retain employees. It opens up grant programs and the Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans so that “shuttered venue operators”—museums and theaters and music venues—can access the funds.
It has $50 billion for vaccine distribution, and ongoing testing and tracing to try to control the virus. It also sets aside $8.5 billion for rural health. There’s a tremendous gift to all the people who’ve lost their jobs but kept their health coverage under COBRA—a massively expensive proposition for people having to pay their part as well as the employer part of their premiums. This bill will fully subsidize their premiums.
There’s $200 billion for that all-important school reopening, getting schools prepared to have students return safely. The changes also dedicate $2.75 billion from the pot of K-12 schools to go to private schools that have a “significant percentage” of low-income students. It also sets aside $3 billion for technology in education, and $1.25 billion each for after school and summer school programs. It gives some help to college students and graduates—anyone who has their loans forgiven in the next five years won’t have to pay taxes on the loan forgiveness which really is a thing. You have to pay taxes on forgiven loans as if it was income. That’s perhaps setting up for a future student loan forgiveness effort from either Biden or the Congress.
There’s $58 billion to boost pension funds that have taken major hits in the past year; $25 billion for restaurants and bars; $30 billion in housing assistance; and the hike in the child tax credit to $3,600 annually for children under six, and $3,000 for children 6-17, paid out monthly instead of as a tax credit at the end of the year. The bill as it stands could cut child poverty in half, just this year.
The long “vote-a-rama” of amendments was kicked off Friday morning with Sen. Bernie Sanders, to put the minimum wage hike back into the bill. That provision was rejected by the Senate Parliamentarian and Biden and Senate leadership decided not to challenge that opinion and force a vote on procedure in overturning it. Putting it in the bill would require 60 votes, so it’s not happening.
Judging by Republicans’ response to Johnson’s antics, they’ll raise some hell early but aren’t really committed to dragging this out for days. “Once we get our top 40 amendments in […] then you’ll see diminishing returns set in and probably some movement towards concluding it,” Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, told reporters. Johnson had promised he would make this process go for “days on end” and that he had his colleagues on board. “I’m coming up with a process that keeps people from tiring out. I’m getting sign ups. I’m laying out a three shift schedule,” he boasted. He perhaps didn’t consider how devoted his colleagues are to having their weekends.
“The Senate’s going to take a lot of votes,” Schumer said in his floor statement Friday morning, “but we are going to power through and finish this bill however long it takes.”