WASHINGTON — The paring knives will come out as Republicans and perhaps the two most conservative Democrats try to slice billions of dollars from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief and stimulus package when the Senate takes it up in the week ahead.
Early Saturday morning, the House approved the relief bill on a near party-line 219-212 vote. It was championed by President Joe Biden, the first step in providing another dose of aid to a weary nation.
Now, senators will have an opportunity to try to trim the sprawling legislation under a parliamentary procedure called budget reconciliation, which allows Democrats to fast-track passage of the bill with only their 51 votes instead of the usual 60.
The $15-an-hour minimum wage has been a top target, but others include $350 billion for state and local governments, $1,400 direct checks for higher-income recipients, and lowering the bonus for unemployment benefits from $400 to $300.
"I can imagine that there will be a lot of substantive amendments offered … that could cause some consternation on the part of some of the members," said G. William Hoagland, a federal budget expert and senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Early next week, Senate Democrats will take up the House package and introduce a substitute bill to kick off the next phase of the budget reconciliation procedure, according to a Senate aide close the process.
With debate limited to 20 hours, voting on amendments could begin as early as Wednesday or Thursday. The Senate vote on its version would come after that, with a conference between the House and Senate over their different versions to follow. Then both chambers would have to approve the compromise.
Democrats aim to see the bill signed into law before March 14, when the enhanced unemployment benefits expire.
Republicans are expected to propose amendments that will force difficult votes on the narrow Democratic majority of 50 caucus members and the tiebreaking Vice President Kamala Harris.
The process will put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who must keep together his caucus that ranges from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin on the right. Schumer can’t lose a single senator on key issues.
Under budget reconciliation, senators also can call for points of order to challenge items in the bill as being unrelated to the budget, based on what’s known as the Byrd rule — named after former Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who established it.
Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough then rules on those challenges. If she agrees the item violates the Byrd rule, it is stricken from the legislation.
But it’s unclear how successful those challenges and amendments will be in substantively changing one of the most expensive spending bills ever, one that many economists and Democrats say is necessary to address the effects of the pandemic on health and the economy.
"I don't expect it to be dramatically different," said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which has proposed to scale back the package to $1.1 trillion.
"I do think that there's some things are going to have to change in the Senate because of the Byrd rule and various constraints and there's some things that they may politically want to adjust," he said. "I can see the total number coming down $100 billion or something. And I can see money being shifted around. But I never imagined dramatic changes."
The fight over raising the federal minimum wage in steps through 2025, to $15 an hour from $7.25 an hour now, probably will be challenged again after MacDonough struck it down under the Byrd rule and House Democrats reworked it to keep it in the legislation.
Challenges are expected to the amount and the rules for the $350 billion allotment for state and local governments.
In the pool of funds, New York would get $23.5 billion, including $12.7 billion for state government, $397.7 million for Nassau County, $286.4 million for Suffolk County, and $304 million for Long Island towns and cities, a House Oversight Committee estimated.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) set the tone for the coming week in a statement knocking House Democrats for passing legislation that lacked bipartisan engagement and support after the previous five bipartisan COVID-19 bills.
"Tonight House Democrats snapped that bipartisan streak," he said in a statement Saturday. "The House’s partisan vote reflects a deliberately partisan process and a missed opportunity to meet Americans’ needs."
The White House stood behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer as they push the bill through Congress.
"Now the bill moves to the United States Senate, where I hope it will receive quick action," Biden said in brief remarks at the White House on Saturday morning.
"We have no time to waste. If we act now decisively, quickly and boldly, we can finally get ahead of this virus. We can finally get our economy moving again," Biden said.
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) said, "I think the Democrats are firmly committed toward making sure the state and local governments are protected and that we get the comprehensive vaccine and testing plan funded, that we protect people whose unemployment is expiring on March 12, and getting stimulus checks to people."
But Suozzi added, "this will be Sen. Schumer’s first real challenge of how well he can hold his narrow majority together."