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Previous story Senate leaders win over key Democratic holdout as party struggles to push through Biden's Covid relief plan Next story


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Published on March 6, 2021 10:15 PM

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CNN's David Axelrod and David Gergen discuss Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) holding up the Covid-19 relief bill for hours before agreeing to a deal.
(CNN)West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin brought the Senate to a standstill on Friday over a policy dispute that threatened to upend President Joe Biden's top agenda item -- a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill -- and prompted a furious lobbying effort behind the scenes after Democrats thought they had party unity.

After hours of gridlock, Democrats reached a deal they believe clears the way to pass the plan, securing Manchin's support after Biden himself intervened. LIVE UPDATES: The latest on the Covid-19 stimulus bill Activity in the Senate ground to a halt amid a holdup over unemployment benefits, with Manchin being pulled in two directions -- by Republicans who attempted to win him over on a proposal they had crafted and by the White House. The dispute was a sign of the centrist Democrat's power in the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats control the narrowest possible majority, and an example of how a single senator can derail the President's agenda.

The day started after Democrats and the White House reached their own last-minute agreement. Democrats cut a deal on Friday morning in order to head off a competing amendment by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, whose plan to extend $300 in weekly jobless benefits might have gotten enough votes to amend the underlying Covid relief bill. So Democrats decided to pare back their own jobless benefits, from $400 in the current bill to $300 per week -- and sweeten the pot, allowing people to deduct the first $10,200 from their taxes. Yet that sweetener only soured Manchin, who had not signed off on the deal before it was announced, prompting a frantic scramble behind the scenes to secure his support after he balked at the proposal. A Democratic aide told CNN on Friday evening that Senate Democrats now plan to offer an amendment to extend the enhanced unemployment insurance program through September 6 at a rate of $300 per week as part of an agreement that Manchin accepted. The aide said the agreement will make the first $10,200 in benefits nontaxable and now includes a provision that the West Virginia Democrat secured to ensure that the benefit applies only to households making less than $150,000. In the end, Manchin also secured a deal where the jobless benefits will expire roughly a month earlier than they would have under the deal cut Friday morning. Under that agreement, benefits would have been extended through September.

Manchin released a statement on the deal Friday evening, saying, "We have reached a compromise that enables the economy to rebound quickly while also protecting those receiving unemployment benefits from being hit with unexpected tax bills next year." White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Friday evening that Biden "supports the compromise agreement, and is grateful to all the Senators who worked so hard to reach this outcome." Vote-a-rama underway The Senate is now undertaking a series of politically tough amendment votes that will stretch into Saturday, the last major hurdle senators face before voting on Biden's top legislative priority. The long series of amendment votes, known as a vote-a-rama, is a Senate tradition that the minority party uses to put members of the majority on the record on controversial issues in an effort to make changes to a bill that they oppose. The first amendment vote -- on a measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 a hour, introduced by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- was an early test of party unity.

Eight senators in the Democratic conference -- Jon Tester of Montana, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Manchin, Angus King of Maine, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and Chris Coons and Tom Carper of Delaware -- opposed the minimum wage amendment, along with every Republican senator. The measure failed with the gavel finally going down on the first amendment vote of the vote-a-rama, 11 hours and 50 minutes after it began, making it the longest roll call vote in recent Senate history. The Democratic negotiations over the unemployment benefits had held up the marathon vote series, keeping the vote open for an extended period of time. Democrats then rejected a Republican motion to adjourn late Friday, banking that Republicans will grow weary and won't offer as many amendments. Early Saturday, the Senate adopted Portman's plan to extend weekly jobless benefits at $300 through July 18. Manchin voted for the GOP proposal, but has also pledged to back Democrats' alternative, which extends jobless benefits at $300 a week through September 6. Democrats are waiting on an official cost estimate before offering their own amendment -- a sign of how the plan came together at the last minute. Once adopted by the Senate, the Democrats' plan would supersede the Portman proposal.