There was drama Friday in the Senate’s vote-a-rama.
What Democrats had billed as the last step before Senate passage of the massive $1.9 trillion coronavirus economic package — a marathon series of rapid-fire amendment votes called vote-a-rama that was expected to last into Saturday — stalled out early, raising questions about the bill’s fate.
The setback was an embarrassing one for Democrats, who had held together through most of the behind-the-scenes process of putting together the package, and it may provide a preview of how the evenly split Senate will operate with moderates in both parties in play.
For Republicans, the Senate floor being frozen for more than five hours showed Democratic leaders did not want their members to be bipartisan at all.
“We’re in at least the fifth hour of explaining to those Democrats: ‘you cannot work with the Republicans. It is not allowed to work with the Republicans. It is not allowed to work with Republicans and we’ll just sit here until you change your mind and keep the whole country waiting,'” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, at a press conference.
At the center of the standoff was Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Republican who, other senators said, was mulling voting for an amendment to the bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and party moderate, instead of one offered by Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat.
Carper’s amendment would have switched around some money in the bill to extend unemployment programs related to the coronavirus pandemic — longer federal benefits and a weekly federal add-on payment — into October instead of late August. It would have paid for this by reducing the size of the add-on payments from $400 to $300 a week. Portman’s amendment would end the pandemic jobless programs even earlier than August.
Asked if Senate Democrats could accept Portman’s amendment, Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said, “Well, we don’t want to. We want to get this wrapped up.”
Republicans said they felt sympathy for Manchin, who they said was being unfairly pressured by his fellow Democrats to go along.
“I feel bad for Joe Manchin. I hope the Geneva Convention applies to him,” joked Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate.
Manchin told reporters Thursday he thought the U.S. economy, thanks in part to faster rollout of coronavirus vaccinations, was ready to surge.
“I think this is going to take off and we want our people ready to go back to work,” he said.
Because the Senate is split 50-50, even a single defection sinks a Democratic provision if all senators vote along strict party lines.
The standstill also meant Democratic leaders held open a vote in which all senators had voted — a procedural vote on an amendment to raise the federal minimum wage offered by Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders.
Democrats needed 60 votes to allow the amendment to be voted on, but only got 42, a sign unease in the party with a $15 minimum wage was not just limited to Manchin and Kysten Sinema, another moderate from Arizona.
The minimum wage vote was supposed to be the first of many in the vote-a-rama, a process senators hate because they have to quickly vote up or down on amendments they have barely seen and that are debated for only two minutes. Republicans had threatened to demand votes on even more amendments than usual, which would push a final passage vote likely into Saturday.
Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar remained upbeat, telling reporters to be patient.
“We will get this done. It takes time to pass legislation when you’re doing real work, which we weren’t doing for a long time. Now we are,” she said.