Second Day of Delay on Covid Stimulus as Senators Debate Minimum Wage

Senators began forming a final Covid-19 relief bill on Friday but were delayed for hours after debate upon an amendment to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Congressional staffers wait in the ornate corridor outside the Senate chamber during a delay in work on the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in Washington Friday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) — After senators were delayed from starting work on the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill for 11 hours a day before, lawmakers slowly began chiseling the bill into its final product on Friday.

Senate clerks read the 628-page bill until after 2 a.m. Friday morning, which is when Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen asked for legislative business to kick off seven hours later at 9 a.m., with only three hours of debate.

That timeline was considerably stunted from the 20 hours originally set aside for debate and discussion on the bill. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson asked for the bill’s complete reading on Thursday, forcing him to remain on the Senate floor until the reading’s completion — but he did not object to the new timeline offered by Democrats then.

Billed by the body Friday as a “vote-a-rama,” lawmakers began discussing amendments to the measure with Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders’ amendment to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, over a period of five years. Over 100 amendments are expected to be offered, debated and then voted on Friday.

“And because this legislation will help workers all across the board, but it will significantly help women who are unfortunately forced into lower income work more than the general population, more than men,” Sanders said. “And it will disproportionately help African Americans and Latinos who are disproportionately are forced into low-income work.”

Many lawmakers voiced their support of Sanders’ amendment, although the provision fell well short of it’s needed 60-vote threshold to pass; its defeat eventually coming by a 42-58 margin.

Initial tallying on Sanders’ amendment began around 11 a.m. but dragged well into the evening as the measure was left open for votes with all 100 senators having made their decision.

The delay dealt with members meeting to negotiate other adjustments to the $1.9 trillion plan, with lawmakers for both parties jockeying for West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to cast his decisive vote in favor of amendments limiting unemployment insurance provisions in the bill.

California Senator Alex Padilla, the newly-appointed member who filled the vacancy left by Vice President Kamala Harris, noted raising the minimum wage was directly related to Covid-19 relief — the pandemic spotlighting the economic inequities in America, he said. The pandemic also helped highlight the essentiality of frontline workers who stocked shelves or lagged behind to care for children, Padilla said.

“Both of my parents worked jobs that are considered essential today,” Padilla said. “For 40 years my father worked as a short order cook, for the same 40 years my mom was a domestic worker and it’s people like them all over America that work hard, with dignity, yet still struggle to make ends meet. That is not the American dream, far from it.”

Washington state Democrat Patty Murray also spoke in support of raising the federal minimum wage, noting that while lawmakers rightfully described essential workers exposing themselves to Covid-19 as heroes, too many were paid less to support their basic needs.

“After more than a decade since the last federal minimum wage increase, the tides are turning and there’s overwhelming support for Congress to act,” Murry said. “So, let me be clear, today’s vote is just one step in our fight. We are not going to give up.” 

This provision and others added by Democrats is in part why Friday’s vote on the first amendment offered by Sanders dragged on for hours, according to South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. At a press conference Friday, he said Democrats had chosen a partisan path to passing the bill without Republican input.

“Now why we’ve been waiting four hours and something for the next vote: there is some bipartisanship to change the bill,” Graham said. “But apparently, that’s an unpardonable sin on the other side. We believe we have some Democrats who read the bill yesterday and found some things they didn’t like, sat down with some Republicans to find a better way and the result is we’ve done nothing for four hours and 20 minutes to break somebody’s political arm.”

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