Joe Biden’s $ 1.9 billion stimulus bill faced an unexpected hurdle in the US Senate on Friday after Joe Manchin, the centrist Democratic senator, confused his willingness to support a compromise on unemployment benefits in law.
Uncertainty over Manchin’s position meant that progress towards approval Biden’s plan in the upper house of Congress paused for hours in a disturbing development for the White House and Democratic leaders.
The U.S. Senate on Thursday began reviewing the stimulus package, Biden’s top legislative priority, and lawmakers began voting on amendments to the package on Friday.
Earlier on Friday, centrist and liberal Democrats reached a White House-backed deal to include an extension of the top-up to unemployment benefits linked to the pandemic until October to $ 300 a week, raising hopes for a solution quick to one of the most controversial. elements of Biden’s plan.
But as Friday moved forward, Manchin still had not backed the deal, raising fears he would oppose the provision or even back a rival amendment pushed by Republican senators led by Rob Portman of Ohio that would end unemployment benefits in July.
If the unemployment benefit provisions are watered down significantly, it could prove problematic for the fate of the bill once it returns to the House of Representatives, where progressive Democratic lawmakers could withdraw their support.
“The president is backing a compromise so we can pass the bailout and get relief, and he and his team are staying in close contact with senators to find a resolution that will meet the needs of Americans who need help the most. “said the White House an official said on Friday evening.
Last Saturday, the House passed its own version of Biden’s stimulus package with a $ 400-per-week extension of jobless benefits until the end of August. In both houses of Congress, Democrats hold a very narrow advantage, with barely any room for defections to the unanimous Republican opposition.
The need to maintain emergency unemployment benefits after they expire on March 14 has been one of the main catalysts for demand for additional stimulus from Biden, which wants to offer protection to millions of Americans who remain out of work in because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Senate Democrats are also offering a tax exemption for the first $ 10,200 in unemployment benefits.
Unemployment benefit changes mark second big change to the stimulus bill this week, after Democratic senators agreed restricted eligibility for direct payments of $ 1,400 from the plan.
The upper house is also split between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, and Kamala Harris, the vice president, throws everything decisive votes.
The strain on unemployment benefits has been hit as US Department of Labor data shows job growth rebounds of its winter doldrums, but still far from pre-pandemic levels, prompting Democrats to point out the need for more stimulus as Republicans said the economy would recover without it.
“The February Jobs Report shows progress, but much more is needed to deal with the daily reality of unemployment and financial insecurity facing millions of Americans,” Nancy Pelosi said Friday, the Speaker of the House of Democrats.
Even though opinion polls show a large majority of Americans backing the stimulus, Republican lawmakers have mounted united opposition to the legislation, saying the aid is not sufficiently targeted to those who have it most. need and the overall price is excessive.
“[Democrats] are determined to fight their way into an ideological spending spree filled with non-Covid policies, ”said Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, on Friday morning.
Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, responded to Republican criticisms on Twitter: “If you think today’s jobs report is ‘good enough’, then take note of it at this rate. . . we would have to wait until April 2023 to return to where we were in February 2020. ”