Washington — The Senate is beginning debate over President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Friday morning, kicking off a flurry of activity aimed at getting a final bill to the president’s desk before several key relief programs expire on March 14.

The 628-page bill enjoys support from all 50 Senate Democrats, but Republicans are aiming to make its passage as difficult as possible by forcing votes on dozens of amendments in a grueling process that could extend into the weekend. The so-called “vote-a-rama” will serve as a test of the ability of newly minted Senate Majority Chuck Schumer to keep his caucus in line.

The Senate convened for up to three hours of debate at 9 a.m., followed by the “vote-a-rama.” 

GOP Senator Ron Johnson forced the Senate clerk to read the entire bill aloud after the Senate voted to proceed on Thursday afternoon, a process that took almost eleven hours and had to be completed before the debate could begin.

Although budget reconciliation rules allow for up to 20 hours of debate, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen asked for debate to be limited to three hours after the Senate clerks finished reading the bill shortly after 2 a.m. Friday. As no Republican was present on the Senate floor to object, the agreement was made and the Senate gaveled out.

A vote on the motion to proceed to debate succeeded in a party-line vote on Thursday afternoon, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the 50-50 tie. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who had said she is undecided about whether she will vote for final passage, voted against moving forward with debate.

The bill is broadly popular, with recent polling showing that a majority of Americans support it, particularly the provision that provides $1,400 in direct checks to earners making under $75,000.

“The Senate is going to move forward with the bill. No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week. The American people deserve nothing less,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday.

The House passed a version of the bill last week, but the measure considered by the Senate is slightly different. Some recently added measures, according to a Senate Democratic aide, include $510 million for FEMA and $750 million for states and communities impacted by job and revenue loss in the tourism, travel and outdoor recreation sectors. Another provision sets aside funding for education, including $1.25 billion for evidence-based summer enrichment, $1.25 billion for after school programs and $3 billion for education technology. It would also make COVID-19 student loan relief tax-free.

Congress is using the budget reconciliation process to pass the bill, which limits time for debate and allows legislation to pass with a simple majority, a workaround that avoids the 60-vote threshold that most bills require to advance in the Senate. If every Democrat supports the final bill, with Harris casting a tie-breaking vote, it would pass without any Republican support.

But Republicans are critical of the size of the bill and frustrated that Democrats are using the reconciliation process, arguing that they are taking a partisan route rather than working across the aisle. Democrats reply that they don’t need to waste time negotiating with Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold and pass a smaller package.

In retaliation, Republican senators aim to make the debate and amendment process politically painful for Democrats. The most excruciating part of the process is the “vote-a-rama,” wherein senators will vote on dozens of amendments in quick succession. “Vote-a-ramas” typically take several hours, often ending early in the morning.

Republicans may offer an amendment that would reduce the $400 in additional unemployment benefits to $300, an amendment which could garner support from moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who told reporters earlier this week that he would prefer a $300 weekly unemployment insurance benefit.

Republicans could also again offer an amendment to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving stimulus checks. During the “vote-a-rama” last month on the budget resolution to set up the reconciliation process, eight Democrats joined all Republicans in voting for the amendment, infuriating progressives.

The Senate parliamentarian ruled last week that the Senate could not include a provision raising the minimum wage to $15 under budget reconciliation rules, but Senator Bernie Sanders has said he will introduce an amendment to do so during the “vote-a-rama.” Sanders also announced Thursday that he would offer an amendment to raise the tipped minimum wage, which is currently $2.12, to $14.75 over seven years.

However, Manchin and Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema have both expressed opposition to raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, meaning the amendment may fail. Even if it did pass, it could be subject to removal under budget reconciliation rules. But Sanders intends to put senators on the record with this vote.

Amendments require support from a simple majority to be added to the bill, and most amendments proposed by Republicans are expected to fail.

“My guess is it’s not likely that many of our amendments will get any Democrat support, so I think it’s very unlikely that that any Republicans will support the final bill,” GOP Senator Mitt Romney told reporters on Thursday.

Jack Turman contributed reporting.

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