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‘People need the help now’: Senate at standstill over coronavirus relief as Biden makes final plea for passage

The US Senate came to an hours-long standstill on Friday, with off-the-floor negotiations among Republicans and moderate Democrats over the future of unemployment benefits for jobless Americans, a compromise that threatened to derail a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation that is critical to Joe Biden’s efforts to combat the pandemic.

Attention centred around moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia as Republicans offered last-minute revisions to jobless aid, along with more than 100 amendments to the aid package as it clears its last major hurdle one year after a public health crisis that has upended American life and its economy.

Democratic lawmakers and the White House are urging its passage before current federal relief on a number of fronts expires on 14 March.

A version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives last week would increase weekly federal unemployment benefits from $300 to $400 a week, through August.

Mr Manchin, whose critical swing vote in a divided Senate has emerged as a political cudgel to Democrats’ ambitions, has warned that the benefits were too generous.

One proposed amendment would keep those benefits at $300 a week, but extend them through September and make $10,200 in benefits free from tax penalties, retroactively.

The White House supported the compromise, though it was unclear whether it had support from senators like Mr Manchin to clear the necessary 51-50 passage in the Senate.

Republican Senator Rob Portman offered another amendment – keeping $300 a week, but only through July, and not tax-free – sending lawmakers huddling for hours as the Biden administration made several 11th hour pleas to send the bill to the president’s desk.

Voting came to a halt after Republicans and eight Democrats rejected Senator Bernie Sanders’ amendment to include a $15 minimum wage in the bill.

The US added roughly 379,000 jobs in February, showing signs of a recovering economy within Joe Biden’s first month in office. But the nation’s pace of hiring is still lagging, as the unemployment rate remains significantly above pre-pandemic levels with more than 9 million Americans out of work than this time last year.

Mr Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain said that “if you think today’s jobs report is ‘good enough,’ then know that at this pace … it would take until April 2023 to get back to where we were in February 2020.”

“This is unacceptable,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. ‘It’s unacceptable when 4 million Americans have been unemployed for more than six months, or when unemployment is at 9.9 per cent for African Americans and 8.5 per cent for Hispanics. Congress must pass the American Rescue Plan now so we can get Americans back to work, and so we can get relief to the millions of people who are struggling.”

During a briefing with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the president said “the gains are going too slow.”

“We can’t afford one step forward and two steps backward,” he said. “We need to beat the virus, provide a sense of relief and build an inclusive recovery. People need the help now.”

The American Rescue Plan includes dozens of other initiatives, including direct payments of $1,400 for millions of Americans, billions of dollars for vaccine deployment and school re-openings, and support for families with children, small businesses, healthcare and other services impacted by the public health crisis.

It has widespread bipartisan support among Americans as well as local and state officials desperate for relief in their cities and states.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson forced Senate aides to read all 628 pages of the bill on Thursday night, delaying debate and votes until Friday.

“I hope he enjoyed his Thursday evening,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Friday.

“It seems the only group in America who doesn’t support the American Rescue Plan are Republicans in Washington,” he said.

He also criticised Republicans who rejected the bill over its cost, pointing to their support for similarly sized tax cuts supported by former president Donald Trump.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters that the bill is “an opportunity to appropriate money for their liberal wishlist” unrelated to the pandemic, including aid to Native communities, arts, museums and libraries – all of which have taken a significant hit from the coronavirus. (”Hogwash,” Mr Schumer said earlier on Friday.)

Mr Graham, speaking in the middle of off-the-floor deliberations among lawmakers, told reporters: “We believe we have some Democrats who read the bill yesterday, found some things they didn’t like, set out with some Republicans to find a better way, and the result is we’ve done nothing for four hours and 20 minutes to break somebody’s political arm.”

South Dakota Republican John Thune suggested the president himself had called Senator Manchin to pressure him against supporting the Republican amendment.

“Senator Graham said it’s going to be a long night? Bring it on,” Senator Sanders said on the senate floor. “At the end of the day we’re going to do what the American people want, what the American people need.”

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