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Marathon fight to pass U.S. pandemic relief tests Democrats' majority


By Susan Cornwell and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The battle to pass a COVID-19 relief bill demonstrated how hard things will be for U.S. President Joe Biden's Democrats in Congress, facing opposition from right and left as they try to score big wins with small majorities.

A smiling Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sang the praises of Democratic unity on Saturday after his chamber approved the $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid plan, one of the largest economic stimulus packages ever. He predicted it will be approved by the House of Representatives next week and quickly signed into law by Biden.

But a day earlier, the Senate was paralyzed for hours when just one Democrat bucked a proposal from his own party affecting unemployment benefits. Because no Republicans backed the bill in a Senate split 50-50, progress on the legislation stopped cold.

Democrats eventually found a solution that satisfied the senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia. They stayed unified and swatted away a host of Republican amendments in an all-night session. The relief bill passed 50-49, with one Republican absent.

"You've got to work a little bit harder when we have this toxic atmosphere and the divisions that we have," Manchin told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "I always want that moderate middle to be able to work."

The episode highlighted the Democrats' razor-thin advantage.

"This was a reminder yesterday that in a 50-50 Senate, if any one member changes their mind on an amendment, or a vote, or an issue, it can change the outcome," Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat, told reporters.

Coons said it was "remarkable" that Schumer held together the Democratic caucus, whose members range from conservatives like Manchin to progressives such as Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and twice sought the party's presidential nomination.

Some Senate changes to the bill, like reducing its enhanced unemployment benefits, will upset progressives in the House. The Democratic majority there has more room for dissenters, with 221 Democrats and 211 Republicans. Nonetheless Democrats can only afford to lose a handful of their own and pass anything.

At least House rules allow legislation to pass by simple majority.

As Democrats now turn to other priorities such as infrastructure spending and immigration reform, Senate rules require 60 votes for most legislation to advance. Generally, the 50 Democratic Senate votes plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris will not be enough.

A procedural maneuver called "reconciliation" allowed Democrats to get around the 60-vote hurdle for the COVID-19 stimulus. It lets bills affecting spending, revenue and debt levels pass with a simple majority.

But there are limits to how often reconciliation can be used and what it can be used for, as the Democrats learned when the Senate's rules expert jettisoned Biden's campaign promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 as part of the COVID-19 package.

BIPARTISANSHIP?

Some progressives have urged ditching the Senate's 60-vote procedural rule - often called the filibuster - to speed more legislation through the chamber. But the episode with Manchin showed the limits of that approach. Without him, the Democrats did not even have 50 votes.

Manchin and fellow Democrat Senator Kyrsten Sinema do not support changing the filibuster rule, so there is not a majority to do so. They say the rule protects the rights of the minority to have a say on legislation.

Biden, who ran for president promising to ease the deep political divisions in America, has said he would like to turn down the partisan heat in Washington and pass legislation with bipartisan support.

After Saturday's vote, Biden said he believed a lot of Republicans had been close to backing the COVID-19 bill.

"I still haven't given up on getting their support" on future legislation, he told reporters.

Biden last week had a bipartisan meeting with members of the House of Representatives on infrastructure spending, another policy goal. After that meeting, Republican Representative Sam Graves said his party's concerns must be taken into account.

"Republicans won’t support another Green New Deal disguising itself as a transportation bill," he said. The Green New Deal program is backed by progressive Democrats who want to cut U.S. carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy.

But the partisan wrangling over the COVID-19 bill may have poisoned the well for bipartisanship in the near term.

Republicans say the Democrats were not serious about finding a bipartisan consensus on the coronavirus measure.

"There’s a sense that all of Biden’s calls for bipartisanship were disingenuous because ... the first major bill he’s got to sign into law, is a partisan bill that they jammed through without any real effort to engage Republicans," said Lanhee Chen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former top adviser to Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.

Democrats questioned why Republicans opposed the coronavirus bill when the aid had broad public support.

“As long as Democrats make an effort to be bipartisan in the eyes of the American people, then they are going to be forgiven if they need to take a party-line vote in order to push forward an agenda that is going to help the American people," said Democratic strategist Bud Jackson.

But things are unlikely to get any easier for Biden's Democrats with their current majorities.

"It's possible that the high point for Democrats was just reached," said Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Gregorio and Daniel Wallis)

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