March 5, 2021 Covid-19 stimulus bill updates

By Melissa Macaya, Meg Wagner and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 9:02 a.m. ET, March 6, 2021
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10:53 a.m. ET, March 5, 2021

Senate Democrats agree to lower unemployment benefit and extend it through September

From CNN's Lauren Fox and the Hill team

In a last-minute change, the Senate Democrats have reached an agreement to extend unemployment benefits through September, but change the benefits to $300 a week instead of $400 a week.

The amendment will be introduced by Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware.

The agreement also creates new tax benefits for people who received Unemployment Insurance (UI) by making the first $10,200 in those benefits not taxable. The intent is to make sure people who received UI are not hit with taxes on the benefit, which could come as a surprise.

The amendment will also include an extension of tax rules regarding excess business loss limitations for one more year.

These provisions are new and different than the House bill, which includes $400 a week of UI benefits through August.

10:41 a.m. ET, March 5, 2021

Today's "vote-a-rama" will be a major test of Democratic unity

From CNN's Clare Foran and Ted Barrett and Lauren Fox

The long series of amendment votes, known as a vote-a-rama, is a Senate tradition that the minority party uses to put members of the majority on the record on controversial issues in an effort to make changes to a bill that they oppose.

It'll be a major test of Democratic unity at a time when Senate Democratic leaders have no margin of error given the 50-50 partisan split of the chamber, where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaking vote.

Democrats are under pressure to stick together to support the relief legislation, which has undergone some major changes in the Senate after the House passed the bill last week, ahead of a final vote. But Republicans are eager to try to exploit any divisions within the majority party.

The goal of Republicans in this vote-a-rama is two-fold:

  1. They want to force Democrats into taking tough political votes on issues related to immigration and energy.
  2. The also want to try and peel off a few moderate Democrats in areas they think might attract some bipartisan support. 

Amendments can pass with 51 votes, but there is a catch: Republicans don't have the votes to pass any amendment and add it to the bill, but let's say they get a Democrat, then yes, the amendment would be passed. The catch here is that at the very end, Schumer can introduce his very own amendment to strip any other amendment out of the bill.

So far, more than 100 amendments have been filed. They won't get to all of them and senators can write amendments on the fly and force votes on them.

You can read more about the "vote-a-rama" process here.

10:29 a.m. ET, March 5, 2021

Senate will vote soon on amendment to raise federal minimum wage to $15 per hour 

From CNN's Manu Raju and Lauren Fox

Senate TV
Senate TV

The Senate will vote at 11:30 a.m. ET on the first amendment to the Covid-19 relief bill: an effort to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

This effort to waive a budget point of order and advance the minimum wage is being pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats. We expect that won't have the Democratic votes to pass.

This will be the first amendment of a process known as a "vote-a-rama." This is a Senate tradition that the minority party uses to put members of the majority on the record on controversial issues in an effort to make changes to a bill that they oppose.

You can read more about the "vote-a-rama" process here.

CNN's Clare Foran and Ted Barrett contributed reporting to this post.

12:48 p.m. ET, March 5, 2021

Here's what you can expect to receive from the Senate stimulus

From CNN's Tami Luhby and Katie Lobosco

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus package being considered now on the Senate floor contains a wide range of proposals to help Americans still struggling with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Here's how Americans could benefit from the Senate bill:

  • If your family makes less than $160,000 a year: The Senate bill would provide direct payments worth up to $1,400 per person to families earning less than $160,000 a year and individuals earning less than $80,000 a year. The payments will phase out faster than they would have under the House version of the bill, which set the income caps at $200,000 for couples and $100,000 for individuals. That means that not everyone who was eligible for a check earlier will receive one now — but for those who do qualify, the new payments will top up the $600 checks approved in December, bringing recipients to a total of $2,000 apiece.
  • If you are unemployed: The jobless would receive a $300 weekly federal boost to unemployment benefits and would get those payments through September, under a last-minute change in the Senate. The deal also calls for extending two key pandemic jobless benefits programs for the same period and making the first $10,200 of unemployment payments tax-free.
  • This is a significant difference from the House bill, which would provide a $400 weekly enhancement through August 29 and continue the two pandemic programs for the same period. The House bill does not contain the tax provision.
  • If you are hungry: Under both the Senate and House bills, food stamp recipients would see a 15% increase in benefits continue through September, instead of having it expire at the end of June. And families whose children's schools are closed may be able to receive Pandemic-EBT benefits through the summer if their state opts to continue it. 
  • If you're behind on your rent or mortgage: Both bills would send roughly $20 billion to state and local governments to help low-income households cover back rent, rent assistance and utility bills.
  • If you have children: Most families with minor children could claim a larger child tax credit for 2021, under a provision contained in both the Senate and House bills. Qualifying families could receive a child tax credit of $3,600 for each child under 6 and $3,000 for each one under age 18, up from the current credit of up to $2,000 per child under age 17.
  • If you own a small business: The bills would provide $15 billion to the Emergency Injury Disaster Loan program, which provides long-term, low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration. Severely impacted small businesses with fewer than 10 workers will be given priority for some of the money.
  • If you're sick: If you're sick, quarantining or caring for an ill loved one or a child whose school is closed, the bills may provide your employer an incentive to offer paid sick and family leave. Unlike Biden's original proposal, the House and Senate bills would not require employers to offer the benefit. But they do continue to provide tax credits to employers who voluntarily choose to offer the benefit through October 1.
  • If you need health insurance: More Americans could qualify for heftier federal premium subsidies for Affordable Care Act policies for two years, under both the Senate and House versions of the plan.

Who is out of luck? Workers being paid at or just above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour will not see a boost in pay. The Senate parliamentarian ruled in late February that increasing the hourly threshold to $15 does not meet a strict set of guidelines needed to move forward in the reconciliation process, which would allow Senate Democrats to pass the relief bill with a simple majority and no Republican votes.

The post has been updated with changes in the proposed Senate legislation.

10:08 a.m. ET, March 5, 2021

McConnell slams relief bill and calls it "a parade of left wing pet projects"

From CNN's Kristin Wilson

Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell assailed the Covid-19 relief plan ahead of the lengthy vote-a-rama that will happen later today.

“This isn't a pandemic rescue package,” he said. “It's a parade of left wing pet projects they are ramming through during a pandemic.”

“It’s like they’ve forgotten we’ve got a pandemic to fight,” he said.

McConnell said his members will offer up amendments to “try to improve the bill.”

“We’re about to vote on all kinds of amendments in the hopes of some of these ideas making it into the final product. We’re going to try to improve the bill,” he said. “We could have worked together to do something smart, to finish this fight as fast as possible. Democrats decided to do something else.”


9:59 a.m. ET, March 5, 2021

Schumer: "We are going to power through and finish this bill, however long it takes"

From CNN's Kristin Wilson

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, thanked the Senate staff who spent nearly eleven hours reading the 628-page Covid relief bill.

 "Thank you, thank you, thank you for your service. For your dedication. You are the unsung heroes of this place," Schumer said. 

 “There'll be a lengthy amendment process as the rules of the Senate require. The Senate is going to take a lot of votes. But we are going to power through and finish this bill, however long it takes. The American people are counting on us and our nation depends on it," he added.

The bill reading came after GOP Sen. Ron Johnson forced it. Schumer had some words for him as well. 

"As for our friend from Wisconsin, I hope he enjoyed his Thursday evening," Schumer said.


9:26 a.m. ET, March 5, 2021

This is the key Republican to watch today

From CNN's Lauren Fox

Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) on February 23, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) on February 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. Sarah Silbiger/Pool/Getty Images

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted "no" on Thursday for a procedural step on this relief bill, but she has remained open potentially to supporting the underlying bill.

She said Thursday that she was going to sit down and review whether the legislation, which had plenty of spending she did not agree with, might help ease the burden of the pandemic for her state.

In other words, she's not a hard no yet. So keep an eye on her.

There are several items in this bill that were added on to try and win over her support. The administration would like nothing more than to be able to call this a "bipartisan bill" even if that only means it got one moderate Republican vote.

9:10 a.m. ET, March 5, 2021

The Senate just reconvened to continue debate on Covid relief bill ahead of "vote-a-rama"

From CNN's Lauren Fox

The Senate just reconvened, and lawmakers will continue a marathon effort to pass President Biden's Covid-19 relief bill.

We expect there will be three hours of debate evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

What happens next: At 12 p.m. ET, a "vote-a-rama" is expected to begin. This series of votes will go and can go for hours and yes, even days.

The question is how much stamina members have, how long can they stand this process and how ready they are to jet off to begin their weekends.

Expect that Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, will get the first amendment, which we expect will be on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We expect that won't have the Democratic votes to pass.

You can read more about the "vote-a-rama" process here.

11:07 a.m. ET, March 5, 2021

Here's what a "vote-a-rama" is and how it could impact the Senate's debate on the relief bill today

From CNN's Paul LeBlanc

The U.S. Capitol building is shown after sunset Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Washington.
The U.S. Capitol building is shown after sunset Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP

Senate Democrats' push to quickly pass President Biden's Covid-19 relief package is about to meet a time-consuming and stamina-challenging speed bump known as a "vote-a-rama."

Republicans are planning to use the process to put Democrats in a tough position to not just stay united, but also consistent about the stimulus package.

Multiple GOP members and aides familiar with the planning previously told CNN that the plan is two-fold: try to peel Democratic members off on a few key amendment votes to highlight differences within the Democratic ranks as well as create some ripe-for-campaign moments that can be made into political ads later on.

Here's what you need to know:

What is a vote-a-rama?: Usually in the legislative process, lawmakers can use a series of procedural maneuvers to avoid voting on amendments. But in a budget reconciliation process — which Democrats are using to advance their bill — you can't do that.

Lawmakers cannot hold a final vote on a reconciliation bill until all the amendments have been "disposed of," or in simpler terms "voted on." The practice involves votes on a series of amendments that can — and usually do — stretch for hours.

How do lawmakers use the process? The party in charge typically wants to move this vote-a-rama along as quickly as possible with as few votes as possible. The minority party takes the opportunity to force votes on all kinds of measures they don't typically have the power to put on the floor.

How long does each vote take?: Usually, lawmakers agree to a process that looks a lot like this.

  • Lawmaker introduces an amendment (sometimes it is just written on a piece of paper).
  • There is a minute of debate equally divided by each side.
  • 10 minutes to vote.

Each amendment takes about 15 minutes or so to get through. The process moves quickly by Senate standards, which is why it is so important for members to basically stay in or close by the chamber for the entire marathon event.

Read more here.