Senate approves budget bill as Harris casts tie-breaker vote

Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat, U.S., Politics
Senator Kamala Harris

The US Senate has approved a budget resolution which is a key step towards fast-track passage of Joe Biden’s 1.9 trillion dollar (£1.4 trillion) coronavirus relief plan, without support from Republicans.

Vice President Kamala Harris was in the chair to cast the tie-breaking vote, her first. Democrats in the chamber applauded after she announced the 51-50 vote at around 5.30am.

The early-morning action came after a gruelling all-night session where senators voted on amendments that could define the contours of the eventual Covid-19 aid bill.

The budget now returns to the House of Representatives, where it will have to be approved again due to the changes made by the Senate.

Final passage will unlock the next phase in drafting the virus relief bill, with the work divided among several congressional committees.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, called passage of the resolution the “first big step to putting our country back on the road to recovery”.

By moving on a fast track, the goal for Democrats is to have Covid relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires.

It is an aggressive timeline that will test the ability of the new administration and Congress to deliver.

Mr Biden later met leading House Democrats to push for approval of the relief plan, telling them: “We can’t do too much here, we can do too little.

“Real, live people are hurting. And we can fix it, and the irony of all ironies is when we help them, we are also helping our competitive capacity, through the remainder of this decade.”

With a rising virus death toll and strained economy, the president’s goal is to have Covid-19 relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid measures expire.

Money for vaccine distributions, direct payments to households, school reopenings and business aid are at stake.

The marathon Senate session brought test votes on several Democratic priorities, including a 15-dollar minimum wage, but members adopted an amendment from Republican Joni Ernst, opposed to raising the wage during the pandemic.

None of the amendments to the budget are binding on Democrats as they draft their Covid plan, but passage of a wage increase could prove difficult. Even if a 15-dollar wage can get past procedural challenges in the final bill, passage will require the support from every Democrat in the 50-50 Senate, which could be a tall order.

Democrat Bernie Sanders, a vocal proponent of the wage increase, vowed to press ahead, saying: “We need to end the crisis of starvation wages.”

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