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Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight

   March 5, 2021 9:12 PM
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by ALAN FRAM

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Covid-19 Pandemic Aid
 
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate leaders and moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin struck a deal late Friday over emergency jobless benefits, breaking a logjam that had stalled the party's showpiece $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide, seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes and, eventually, approval of the sweeping legislation.

The overall bill, President Joe Biden's foremost legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health. It would provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans and money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry and subsidies for health insurance.

The Senate next faced votes on a pile of amendments that were likely to last overnight, mostly on Republican proposals virtually certain to fail but designed to force Democrats to cast politically awkward votes.

More significantly, the jobless benefits agreement suggested it was just a matter of time until the Senate passes the bill. That would ship it back to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval and whisk it to Biden for his signature.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden supports the compromise on jobless payments.

The day's lengthy standoff underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years — and the tensions between progressives and centrists — as they try moving their agenda through the Congress with their slender majorities.

Manchin is probably the chamber's most conservative Democrat, and a kingmaker in the 50-50 Senate. But the party can't tilt too far center to win Manchin's vote without endangering progressive support in the House, where they have a mere 10-vote edge.

Aiding unemployed Americans is a top Democratic priority. But it's also an issue that drives a wedge between progressives seeking to help jobless constituents cope with the bleak economy and Manchin and other moderates who have wanted to trim some of the bill's costs.

Biden noted Friday's jobs report showing that employers added 379,000 workers — an unexpectedly strong showing. That's still small compared to the 10 million fewer jobs since the pandemic struck a year ago.

"Without a rescue plan, these gains are going to slow," Biden said. "We can't afford one step forward and two steps backwards. We need to beat the virus, provide essential relief, and build an inclusive recovery."

The overall bill faces a solid wall of GOP opposition, and Republicans used the unemployment impasse to accuse Biden of refusing to seek compromise with them.

"You could pick up the phone and end this right now," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Biden.

But in an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70% of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44% of Republicans.

The House approved a relief bill last weekend that included $400 weekly jobless benefits — on top of regular state payments — through August. Manchin was hoping to reduce those costs, asserting that level of payment would discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many economists reject.

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