Schumer: Senate to move forward on $1.9 trillion covid bill and 'We'll have the votes'

WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the Senate will move forward as soon as Wednesday on President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill and pledged, "We'll have the votes we need to pass the bill."

Schumer's comments at a press conference Tuesday came even as moderate Senate Democrats maneuvered to limit some of the expenditures in the bill, over objections from liberals who insisted they'd already made concessions on Biden's first major legislative proposal.

Biden urged Senate Democrats on a private lunchtime call Tuesday to stay united behind the bill, arguing it's broadly popular with the public and controversial only on Capitol Hill, according to two Democrats who spoke on condition of anonymity to recount the private comments.

"He got on and kind of gave us a rally call," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Meanwhile Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he hoped that "in the end Senate Republicans will unanimously oppose it, just like House Republicans did" when the legislation passed the House on Saturday with no GOP votes.

"This is a wildly expensive proposal largely unrelated to the problem," McConnell said. "We think this package should have been negotiated on a bipartisan basis. . . . Instead the new administration made a conscious decision to jam us."

Senate Democrats are pushing the sprawling legislation forward under a process called "budget reconciliation" that allows it to pass with a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes required for most major legislation. With the Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, that means Democrats can succeed only if they stay united and Vice President Kamala Harris breaks the tie.

Democrats and the Biden administration want to complete the legislation ahead of a March 14 deadline when emergency unemployment benefits will expire for millions of Americans unless Congress acts to extend them.

If the Senate takes an initial procedural vote to open debate on the bill on Wednesday, final passage could come at the end of the week, following a lengthy amendment process. The legislation would then likely need to go back to the House for final passage.

Amendments are expected from all sides, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pledging a vote to restore a $15 minimum wage that the Senate parliamentarian ruled was not allowed in the bill under the rules of budget reconciliation.

Republicans are teeing up amendments aimed at dividing Democrats. And moderate Senate Democrats are eyeing changes of their own that, if adopted, could create problems for the bill among liberals in the House.

Biden's bill would increase the existing $300 weekly federal unemployment benefit to $400 per week and extend it through August. But a handful of moderate Democrats want to keep the benefit at $300 per week, while others -- such as Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore. -- hope to extend it through September instead of August. Discussions were ongoing about both the timing and the level of the benefit.

"I've been at $300 ... it's kind of hard to explain you're getting a bump-up now," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., suggesting the higher $400 figure would reduce incentives for people to rejoin the workforce just as increasing vaccinations are poised to help the economy reopen.

"We want people to get back to work," Manchin said. "It'd be awful for the doors to open up and there's no one working, you got a lot of customers, no one working. That's the problem."

Manchin's proposal was running into opposition from liberals in both chambers.

"I oppose that. I don't know if it will prevail but I'm for $400," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said reducing the unemployment benefit to $300 "makes no sense whatsoever" given that Congress passed a $600 weekly benefit last year in the Cares Act.

"It's going to be a challenge for progressives if the package gets watered down," Jayapal said.

Asked if Democrats are open to "targeting" certain aspects of the bill as moderates are proposing, Schumer said: "We want to get the biggest, strongest, boldest bill than can pass. And that's what we're working to do."

Biden himself did not take questions from senators when he called into their weekly lunch Tuesday, instead using the opportunity to make the case for them to unite and pass his bill.

"This is real important that Democrats stick together, and let's get this done for the American public," Kaine said, summarizing the president's message. "The public really needs it. This plan is composed of the right elements. It's popular. Republicans like it. Republican mayors and governors like it. The bill will be chock full of things that Republicans have asked for. So, you know, let's do it."

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The Washington Post's Jeff Stein, Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.