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US senate approves $1.9tn Covid-19 relief package after overnight 'vote-a-thon'
6 March 2021, 18:54
The US senate has narrowly approved a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package in a significant win for newly-elected President Joe Biden.
The total spend amounts to almost 10% of the country's economy but supporters argue it necessary for America's recovery following the pandemic.
Senators argued throughout the night over a significant number of amendments - nearly all from Republicans and all of which were rejected - and the bill was eventually approved by 50-49 votes on Saturday afternoon.
It sets up final congressional approval by the US house of representatives next week so that congress can send it to Mr Biden for his signature.
"We tell the American people: help is on the way," said senate majority leader Chuck Schumer following the vote.
Citing the country's desire to return to normality, he added: "Our job right now is to help our country get from this stormy present to that hopeful future."
Saturday's vote was also a crucial political moment for the new Biden administration, which needed nothing short of party unity to win the vote slim.
A small group of moderate Democrats pushed changes in the bill that angered progressives, making it difficult for speaker Nancy Pelosi to guide the measure through the house.
The bill provides direct payments of up to $1,400 (£1,010) for most Americans, extended emergency unemployment benefits and vast spending for Covid-19 vaccines and testing in states, their schools and ailing industries, along with tax breaks to help lower-income households.
The package faced tough opposition from Republicans, who labelled the package a wasteful spending spree for Democrats.
"The senate has never spent two trillion dollars in a more haphazard way," said senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.
Of the Democrats, he said: "Their top priority wasn't pandemic relief. It was their Washington wish list."
The senate commenced a "vote-a-thon" - a continuous series of votes on amendments - shortly before midnight on Friday, and by the end had called around three dozen.
While vaccine supplies are growing in the US, deaths and caseloads have eased but remain frighteningly high.
Figures released this week show that hiring was surprisingly strong last month, though the economy remains 10 million jobs lighter than pre-pandemic levels.
The senate package was delayed repeatedly as Democrats made 11th-hour changes aimed at balancing demands by their competing moderate and progressive factions.
Work on the bill ground to a halt Friday after an agreement among Democrats on extending emergency jobless benefits seemed to collapse, with a compromise reached after 12 hours of negotiations.