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Published on March 6, 2021 12:16 AM

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Desperate Americans wait as Washington duels over Covid-19 relief bill
(CNN)President Joe Biden says the massive Covid-19 relief bill now on the Senate floor is crucial to finally getting a jump on a murderous pandemic. It's also a perfect metaphor for American politics in 2021.

The measure contains many billions of dollars in extended unemployment benefits, help for shuttered small businesses, cash for getting schools open and it stands up a nationwide effort to speed up vaccines that could finally reduce the virus to manageable levels. The latest government data shows the country is down nearly 10 million jobs from where it was a year ago -- underscoring the aching human need the package will address. But Republicans charge the measure is laden with big-ticket liberal spending that has nothing to do with the crisis and quarrel with substantial aid payments to states and cities that they argue are hurting less than expected owing to better-than-projected tax revenues.

Despite a flurry of expected poison pill amendments Friday, Democrats hope to get the bill passed this weekend -- likely with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a deciding vote in the 50-50 Senate, reflecting a knife-edge balance of power. Before then, a theatrical Senate floor tussle -- featuring stunts by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and a $1.9 trillion, 628-page bill that represents a leading punch by Democrats operating on partisan lines -- is writing the early history of the Biden era in Washington. The bill's vital symbolic importance to a new President sizing up a capstone for his first 100 days, likely lock-step GOP opposition and a struggle by Democratic leaders to corral a troublesome caucus behind it, foreshadow two tumultuous years in Congress.

"If we act now -- decisively, quickly, and boldly -- we can finally get ahead of this virus. We can finally get our economy moving again," Biden said last week. The clash over Covid relief also reflects the changing politics of the pandemic, with Biden warning the crisis is far from over and Republicans arguing that a sudden surge in vaccine distribution and a fall in new cases makes more huge government aid superfluous. Senate debate on the American Recovery Plan will start for real on Friday after Johnson, who is leading a circus-like GOP bid to slow down the bill, forced Senate clerks to read the bill aloud -- a process that began Thursday afternoon and was expected to be a 10-hour marathon. For a while, Johnson was the only senator in the chamber on Thursday evening as luckless Senate clerks plowed through the monster text — reflecting the grandstanding inherent in a gambit that seemed scripted for conservative cable news shows. By trying to highlight what he sees as massive overspending with a stalling effort, Johnson -- who was most recently seen selling delusional claims that the red-hatted invaders of the US Capitol on January 6 were not Trump supporters -- is focusing attention on a GOP conference apparently committed to politics of obstruction.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer blasted Johnson's tactics on Thursday, saying it wouldn't do much more than give the clerks "sore throats." But Democrats may also be relaxed that a high-profile supporter of Trump prone to wild conspiracy theories has emerged as the most visible Republican opposition to their efforts, since it allows them to drive home the case that the GOP is in denial and heartless. That was a message that helped Biden position himself as the man to end a national crisis in his campaign last year. "Americans should see the bill," California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell said on CNN "Newsroom" on Thursday. "That's why it's posted online." "Every hour that stunts like this are pulled off is an hour that a hungry person is not fed and an unemployed person is not at work and someone in need of a vaccination, like a teacher, doesn't get it," he said.