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VP Harris casts tie-breaking vote to start COVID debate as GOP senator demands 628 page bill be read

 The US Senate took up President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill on Thursday but a brazen ploy by opponents - they forced the entire 628-page bill to be read aloud in the chamber - caused delays.     

Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate Thursday so lawmakers could start debate. But, immediately, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin demanded the entire text of the 628-page bill be read aloud. A Senate clerk started the reading at 3:21 p.m. and it's expected to take 10 hours. 

The recitation proceeded uninterrupted deep into Thursday night with clerks taking turns reading the dry, technical language in a monotone that threatened to put lawmakers and others to sleep.

Debate on the package, which Democrats argue is the best way to combat the pandemic, may only begin well after midnight.

Bill readings are almost always dispensed with at the start to allow for debate, but Johnson saw it as way to register his frustration over the massive outlay of federal spending.

'I feel bad for the clerks that are going to have to read it, but it's just important,' said Johnson, who has already faced criticism this week for suggesting the deadly January 6 US Capitol riot was not an 'armed insurrection.'

'Why are we authorizing another $1.9 trillion when we still have a trillion dollars sitting on the sidelines' unspent from the previous pandemic relief bills? he told reporters.

'It's actually hard to spend this much money.'

With the Senate evenly divided at 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, senators hung out on the Senate floor, chatting in small groups, as they waited for Harris to be rushed up Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to break the tie earlier Thursday.

She arrived in a flurry and took her seat on the dais, announcing: 'The Senate being equally divided the vice president votes in the affirmative and the motion is agreed to.' 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to waive the reading of the bill, which usually all senators agree to in order to save time. 

But any single senator can object to the waiver and Johnson did so.  

Vice President Kamala Harris arrives in the Senate to cast a tie breaking vote so lawmakers can start debate on COVID relief measure

VP Harris' vote may be needed several more times as senators debate amendments and then hold a final vote on the relief package, which is not expected to get any Republican support

With the 51 yeas and 50 nays, senators could proceed to debate the COVID relief bill

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin demanded the entire text of the 628 page bill be read aloud and a Senate clerk will spend next 10 hours doing just that

'Reserving the right to object,' he said. Johnson and other Republican senators are trying to stall a final vote on the bill as part of their objection to the legislation. They are using legislative procedure to help them along.

'Is he allowed?,' Schumer demanded.

Harris ruled Johnson's objection was allowed and the clerk of the Senate would have to read the bill - all 628 pages. 

'The objection is heard. The clerk will continue the reading,' she said.

The reading commenced as senators stood chatting, their voices growing louder than the clerk's. Harris gaveled the chamber into order and then left the room.

Most senators also left, including Johnson, leaving the clerk reading to a nearly empty room.  Johnson did return later to sit at his desk to listen to the reading.

Johnson later tweeted, 'If they're going to add nearly $2T to the national debt at least we should know what's in the bill.' 

Senator Bernie Sanders appeared to joke with a colleague. 

'I want to stay to hear the reading. I may have missed something,' he said letting out a loud laugh. 

And he told another colleague: 'Good thing we have time during a national emergency to do this.' 

Earlier in the day, Schumer said the only thing the reading would accomplish was sore throats for the Senate clerks.

'We all know this will merely delay the inevitable. It will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks, who work very hard, day-in, day-out, to help the Senate function. And I want to thank our clerks, profoundly, for the work they do every day, including the arduous task ahead of them,' he said in remarks on the Senate floor.

'Still, we are delighted that the Senator from Wisconsin wants to give the American people another opportunity to hear what's in the American Rescue Plan,' he added.

After the bill is read, senators will proceed to 20 hours of debate of the legislation.  After that they will hold a vote-a-rama, a series of votes on multiple amendments to the legislation, an activity that usually goes most of the day and into the night. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walks through the Ohio Clock Corridor in the Capitol on Thursday in route to his office 

Capitol remains on high alert for potential unrest from Trump supporters with members of the National Guard on patrol

National Guard members on alert in front of the Capitol on Thursday ahead of reports of potential unrest from Donald Trump supporters

Anti-climbing fencing topped with razor wire surrounds the Capitol Hill complex

National Guard soldiers ride the underground subway in the U.S. Capitol, on a break between patrols

It's unclear when there will be a final vote on the legislation but it could be this weekend. 

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives canceled its votes scheduled for Thursday after U.S. Capitol Police revealed it has received intelligence reports that indicated 'a possible plot to breach the Capitol by an identified militia group.' 

Thursday was predicted by followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory to be the day that Donald Trump will take power again, returning to D.C. to be inaugurated as president once more. 

March 4 had been branded by QAnon loyalists as 'real Inauguration Day' as it was the date formerly scheduled for the event until 1933. 

Security was beefed up around the Capitol out of fears there could be a situation similar to January 6 - when pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, resulting in five dead and a wake of destruction in the building. 

Lawmakers were forced to flee their chambers and go into hiding as rioters swarmed the building, some waving Confederate flags or Trump signs.  Some shouted 'where's Mike' as they searched for then Vice President Mike Pence, who was rushed from the Senate floor moments after the Capitol was breached. The rioters came within a hundred feet of Pence and several yelled 'Hang Mike Pence' as they searched for him. 

There's a much tighter security perimeter for Thursday compared to January 6th, however. Anti-climbing fencing topped with razor wire surrounds the Capitol Hill complex. Lawmakers, staff and media must enter through check points manned by armed National Guard troops. 

Under the heavy arm of security, the Senate will be focused on the relief package with a day of rigorous debate and parliamentary procedure.  

Senate Republicans have denounced the legislation as too expensive and filled with liberal priorities. They have vowed to hold up a final vote on it as long as possible.

Depending on how long Republicans can stall and how many amendments are offered the legislation, a final vote on the COVID relief package may not come until the weekend.

In the 50-50 chamber, Senate Democrats cannot afford to lose one vote and leaders have worked to shore up support for the legislation. 

President Biden already agreed to one compromise: cutting off stimulus checks to Americans who make more than $80,000 a year.   

He told reporters in the White House on Thursday he was comfortable with his decision cap the limit on those receiving checks.  

Biden made the move to sooth Senate moderates, who worried about the cost of the legislation. But the change infuriated progressives - although they are expected to still support the bill.

The compromise means that 9 million fewer households would receive a stimulus payment than in the last tranche of payouts, which came out from President Donald Trump. It also lowers the cost of the legislation by $12 billion, according to Senate Democrats.

Democrats also increased minimum payments to states with smaller rural populations to match the $1.25 billion minimum contained in last year's CARES Act. 

And they added $10 billion for infrastructure, $8.5 billion for health providers and expanded health-care subsidies for those who lose their jobs. 

The relief package contains several provisions that have made it popular in opinion polls, even while attracting virtually no Republican support in Congress.

The House passed the COVID relief bill last week with no GOP support. Senate Republicans also are not expected to vote for it. Not a single Republican senator voted to proceed to debate on the legislation Thursday, indicating Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell is keeping his senators in line in objecting to the legislation.

After the Senate passes its final, amended version of the legislation, the House will have to vote on it before Biden can sign it into law. 

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