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Senate Republicans are trying to drag out the stimulus process in the middle of a national emergency

Republicans are doing what they can to delay passage of the Covid-19 relief bill.

Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) speaks at the start of a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak on March 5, 2020, in Washington, DC. 
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Senate Republicans — beginning with a reading of the entirety of the stimulus package on Thursday — have been trying to drag out the legislative process on the bill as much as possible in an effort to make things uncomfortable for Democrats.

That also means, however, that they’re delaying the legislation’s passage in the middle of a public health crisis, as millions of people and thousands of businesses wait on congressional aid.

In an effort spearheaded by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Republicans asked Senate clerks to read the full 628-page stimulus bill aloud on Thursday, a practice that’s allowed for every measure but often skipped because of how time-consuming it is. And on Friday, Republicans are gearing up for a “vote-a-rama,” where they will offer amendment after amendment as part of a stacked series of votes the Senate has to hold — so much so that some lawmakers think it could be the longest one the chamber has ever endured.

“It’s indefinite, you know. Lots of people who want to offer lots of amendments and ... who knows when it starts,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) recently told reporters.

Such tactics have been common to the budget reconciliation process, which otherwise subverts some of the minority party’s power over the Senate, and which Democrats are using to pass the bill while avoiding the filibuster. Because the process can be used to bypass them, the minority party often capitalizes on procedure to send a message about their opposition to the bill at hand. In 2017, for example, Democrats used amendments in the vote-a-rama to express their support for the Affordable Care Act as Republicans tried to repeal it.

“Vote-a-rama is the punishment that the minority party gets to inflict on the majority party for using the streamlined processes set up in the budget process and reconciliation,” Zach Moller, a former Senate Budget Committee staffer, previously told Marketplace.

The current delays, however, are also taking place against an urgent context: As Republicans attempt to prolong consideration of the bill, people are continuing to experience severe economic and public health fallout, and Congress is racing to hit a March 14 deadline. Since enhanced unemployment insurance support is expected to expire on that date, lawmakers are trying to approve the bill swiftly in order to avoid going over that cliff, which would put roughly 12 million people’s benefits at risk.

The next steps for Covid-19 relief, briefly explained

The Senate is poised to have a couple long days and nights as lawmakers wrap up the reconciliation process this week. After approving a motion to proceed to the Covid-19 bill on Thursday, the upper chamber is taking the following steps before voting on its passage:

  • Republicans on Thursday asked for the bill to be read in full: Johnson previously pushed for all 628 pages of the legislation to be read on the grounds that there should be transparency about what’s in it. And his demand ultimately added over 10 hours to the legislative process. “If they’re going to add nearly $2T to the national debt at least we should know what’s in the bill,” Johnson wrote on Twitter. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, countered that his efforts wouldn’t change the outcome. ”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,” he said.
  • The Senate will debate the bill for three hours: Per budget reconciliation rules, lawmakers have up to 20 hours to discuss the provisions in the bill and make their respective floor arguments about them after the reading is completed. Senators, however, have agreed to shorten this window to three hours.
  • There will be a marathon amendment voting session: Democratic lawmakers have mostly worked out the substantive changes to the House legislation already, but senators have a chance to propose more amendments in the vote-a-rama, after the three hours of debate end. This exercise, which includes back-to-back votes on a series of issues, will include amendments related to Covid-19 aid as well as many that are simply intended to force a vote on a contentious subject: In February, Republicans offered amendments to pack the court and support the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • Lawmakers will take a final vote on the legislation and send it back to the House: After the Senate approves the legislation, the House will also have to approve the new version of the bill before it heads to President Joe Biden for his signature.

There’s a lot at stake in this Covid-19 relief package, which includes $1,400 stimulus checks, $400 in enhanced weekly unemployment insurance, and $350 billion in state and local aid. Thus far, Democrats have remained united in their attempts to move it forward — and depending on whether any GOP senators sign on, they ultimately might have to pass it on their own.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, seem perfectly open to dawdling on the legislation despite the critical support it would provide to many people currently in need.