U.S. Senate passes budget plan to advance Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID aid package

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WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden’s drive to enact a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill gained momentum on Friday as the U.S. Senate narrowly approved a budget blueprint allowing Democrats to push the legislation through Congress in coming weeks with or without Republican support.

At the end of about 15 hours of debate and votes on dozens of amendments, the Senate found itself in a 50-50 partisan deadlock over passage of the budget plan. That deadlock was broken by Vice President Kamala Harris, whose “yes” vote provided the win for Democrats.

This was a “giant first step” toward passing the kind of comprehensive coronavirus aid bill that Biden has put at the top of his legislative agenda, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Shortly before the final vote, Democrats flexed their muscles by offering an amendment reversing three earlier votes that Republicans had won.

Those had used the coronavirus aid battle to voice support for the Canada-to-United States Keystone XL pipeline that Biden has blocked and support for hydraulic fracking to extract underground oil and natural gas.

Also overturned was a Republican amendment barring coronavirus aid to immigrants living in the United States illegally.

With Democrat Harris presiding, she broke a 50-50 tie to overturn those Republican victories.

It marked the first time Harris, in her role as president of the Senate, cast a tie-breaking vote after being sworn in as Biden’s vice president on Jan. 20.

Before finishing its work, the Senate approved a series of amendments to the budget outline, which had already passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday. As a result, the House must now vote again to accept the Senate’s changes, which could occur as early as Friday.

For example, the Senate added a measure calling for increased funding for rural hospitals whose resources are strained by the pandemic.

Senate Democrats and the Biden administration have said they want comprehensive legislation to move quickly to address a pandemic that has killed more than 450,000 Americans and left millions jobless.

They want to spend the $1.9 trillion to speed COVID-19 vaccines throughout the nation. Other funds would extend special unemployment benefits that will expire at the end of March and make direct payments to people to help them pay bills and stimulate the economy.

They also want to send money to state and local governments dealing the worst health crisis in decades.

But as the hours wore on and dozens of amendments were offered, exhausted senators mainly spent the night disposing of Republican ideas, such as ending all U.S. foreign aid and prohibiting Congress from expanding the U.S. Supreme Court beyond its current nine justices.