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Congress Approves Budget, Paving the Way For Biden's COVID-19 Relief Package

During the marathon Senate session on Thursday into Friday, Vice President Harris had to cast her first tiebreaking vote in the divided Senate.
During the marathon Senate session on Thursday into Friday, Vice President Harris had to cast her first tiebreaking vote in the divided Senate.

Updated at 2:31 p.m. ET

The House quickly approved a budget resolution intended to speed the drafting of President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

The Senate approved the same budget resolution early Friday morning. With the Senate evenly divided, Vice President Harris cast the tiebreaking vote.

Democrats are planning to use a feature of the budget process called reconciliation to pass the legislation with a simple majority in the Senate, meaning it could be approved entirely along party lines. The process is expected to last weeks and key components face calls for changes, including how to distribute another round of direct payments.

On Friday, Biden said he does not think congressional Republicans were prepared to deal quickly enough with his economic proposal and said he and Democrats would move quickly to deliver the aid.

"They're just not willing to go as far as I think we need to go," Biden said, noting that he had wanted to work with Republicans on the package but was not willing to delay. He said that GOP lawmakers have "suddenly rediscovered" fiscal restraint and concerns about the deficit and that too many are opposed to any spending or won't agree to a big enough package.

The next step is for House and Senate committees to begin drafting legislation using Biden's proposal as a framework. Biden is calling for spending to include money for vaccine distribution, upgrades to hospitals and schools, $1,400 stimulus checks for most Americans and expanded pandemic unemployment aid.

The process of writing the legislative text may take weeks and will require Senate Democrats to find unanimous agreement on every element. They have a slim majority in the House, but the even split in the Senate provides a significant challenge.

While Democrats generally agree on many of the principles in Biden's proposal, they have yet to confront internal disagreements about some of the details. Not all Democrats have embraced Biden's call for a $15 federal minimum wage. Democrats also disagree on elements of other policies, like a plan to forgive some federal student loan debt and efforts to tie federal unemployment benefits to the average national unemployment rate.

The Senate process took several days — Harris arrived to break the tie on the resolution shortly after 5:30 a.m. following an all-night "vote-a-rama," which brought hours of votes on dozens of amendments, many intended to force legislators to take a public stand on unrelated controversial issues.

Some amendments that passed overnight in the Senate expressed support for policies or provided specific allowances and suggestions that committees address hot-button issues. For example, there was unanimous support for allowing committees to prevent tax hikes on small businesses during a public health emergency. Other bipartisan amendments allowed committees to consider tighter income requirements for future stimulus checks and suggested establishing grants for bars and restaurants.

These amendments are mostly nonbinding and simply send a message of priorities to the committees that will write the final legislation.

The amendments also give a glimpse of the ways GOP lawmakers will campaign against any final legislation — and also some lines of attack for the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans oppose the size of Biden's proposal and have offered a smaller alternative. The president said he "will not settle" on his pandemic relief bill.

"I'm going to act. I'm going to act fast," Biden reiterated on Friday. If forced to choose between acting quickly or finding bipartisan compromise, Biden said: "That's an easy choice – I'm going to help the American people who are hurting – now."

Biden made his remarks after a "good but very long meeting" with House Democrats. Joined by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, he said the January jobs numbers showed the U.S. economy "is still in trouble" and said coronavirus caseloads showed "we're still in the teeth of this pandemic."

"I see enormous pain in this country, a lot of folks out of work," he said. "A lot of folks are losing hope."

Reconciliation can be controversial though both parties have used the process to pass major legislation. In 2017, Republicans used it to enact a massive tax bill. In 2009, Democrats used it to pass part of the health care law. There have also been bipartisan reconciliation packages.

The process does not guarantee success. Republicans failed in 2017 to use reconciliation to repeal the Affordable Care Act after internal differences split the party.

The final package will also be subject to complex Senate budgetary restrictions, called the Byrd Rule. That requires that all elements of a reconciliation package be budgetary in nature. It also cannot make changes to Social Security.

The House and Senate must pass identical bills before they send it to Biden.

Democrats want to complete this process by March 14, when current enhanced unemployment assistance benefits expire.

NPR White House reporter Scott Detrow contributed to this report

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