The Senate voted Thursday to begin debating a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, after Democrats made eleventh-hour changes aimed at ensuring they could pull President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority through the precariously divided chamber.
Democrats were hoping for Senate approval of the package before next week, in time for the House to sign off and get the measure to Biden quickly. They were encountering opposition from Republicans arguing that the measure’s massive price tag ignored promising signs that the pandemic and wounded economy were turning around.
As soon as the Senate began considering the bill, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., forced the chamber's clerks to begin reading the entire 628-page measure aloud — a procedural move that will take hours to complete.
Democratic leaders made over a dozen late changes in their package, reflecting their need to cement unanimous support from all their senators — plus Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote — to succeed in the 50-50 chamber. It’s widely expected the Senate will approve the bill and the House will whisk it to Biden for his signature by mid-March, handing him a crucial early legislative victory.
The bill, aimed at battling the killer virus and nursing the staggered economy back to health, will provide direct payments of $1,400 to vast numbers of Americans. There’s also money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry, tax breaks for lower-earners and families with children, and subsidies for health insurance.
In other developments:
- Roughly 98% of U.S. households that received a COVID-19 relief check in December will also qualify for the next round of payments being championed by President Joe Biden, according to a White House official.
- Older adults have top priority in COVID-19 immunization drives the world over right now, and hundreds of thousands of them are spending hours online, enlisting their children’s help and traveling hours to far-flung pharmacies in a desperate bid to secure a COVID-19 vaccine.
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state health officials came under deeper scrutiny amid revelations that seniors in a wealthy enclave in Key Largo received hundreds of life-saving vaccinations as early as mid-January, giving ammunition to critics who say the Republican governor is favoring wealthy constituents over ordinary Floridians.
- Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is bucking the Republican trend to extend the state’s mandatory face mask order by a month. States including Texas and neighboring Mississippi are ending masking requirements.
- The California Legislature has approved a $6.6 billion plan aimed at returning students to the classroom. The legislation approved Thursday would give school districts $2 billion if they offer in-person instruction by the end of the month.
- The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits edged higher last week to 745,000, a sign that many employers continue to cut jobs despite a drop in confirmed viral infections and evidence that the overall economy is improving.
- A new study of pro athletes found heart inflammation was uncommon after a mild case of COVID-19. The research was conducted by major professional sports leagues in the U.S.
- A shipment of over a quarter million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been blocked from leaving the European Union, in the first use of an export control system instituted by the bloc to make sure big pharma companies would respect their contracts.
- The U.N. economic agency for Latin America and the Caribbean says more than 20 million people across the region were pushed into poverty during pandemic-plagued 2020.