Suspense: Manchin's support for GOP amendment on unemployment benefits threatens to upend Dems' COVID bill; Update: Deal reached?

What a sh*tshow. I mentioned in an earlier post that congressional Dem leaders had struck a deal with the White House today to tweak the unemployment benefits in the House’s COVID stimulus bill. Pelosi’s caucus wanted $400 per week through August. An amendment sponsored by Dem Sen. Ben Carper would change that to $300 per week through early October. Leaner payments but a longer time frame, plus the first $10,200 in UI received by each individual would be tax-free. Biden signed off, Schumer signed off, and presumably Pelosi signed off. Good to go.

Except for one thing.

They forgot to run it by the guy who routinely casts the deciding vote in our 50/50 Senate.

Apparently Joe Manchin wasn’t sold yet. The GOP sensed an opportunity. Rob Portman floated his own amendment, similar to Carper’s but less generous. Portman wanted $300 per week — but only through mid-July. That would mean savings of $128 billion from the House package, according to Republican estimates. Manchin liked that idea. And suddenly the Senate was reduced to chaos:

Manchin spoke by telephone with Portman on Friday afternoon as the intrigue grew and the Senate stalled

Sinema indicated to Manchin that he could theoretically vote for both Carper’s Democratic amendment and Portman’s GOP amendment in an attempt to end the stalemate. The two parties are fighting over which order to hold the amendment votes in.

Democrats said they were concerned that approving the GOP changes on unemployment benefits could require another round of negotiations with the House and Biden. That would risk pushing the bill’s consideration closer to March 14, when the current round of boosted benefits is set to expire.

Carper was reportedly “visibly irritated” by Manchin’s last-second ploy.

The Senate’s been paralyzed for hours as I write this, unable to proceed on any of the amendments queued up for a vote tonight because Manchin can’t make up his mind. He likes the idea of ending beefed-up federal unemployment by July because he expects businesses will be reopening by that point and hiring workers. Why extend generous benefits any longer than you need to, right? The problem is that the Democratic majority in both chambers is narrow and Manchin wanting to pinch pennies (relatively speaking) could alienate some progressives who resent having to kowtow to his conservative-ish demands. What happens if Pelosi can’t get to 218 on a bill that includes Portman’s amendment? What if, in other words, this is a poison pill fed to the party by one of their own members?

As noted above, the order in which Portman’s and Carper’s amendments will be offered could also matter: “Depending on how the amendments were structured, Democrats could technically strip out Portman’s amendment, if it was added to the bill, by holding a subsequent vote on Carper’s proposal. But to do that, they would need Manchin’s support.” Why would Manchin agree to strip out Portman’s amendment after voting yes on it, though? Presumably Dems want Carper to go first in the belief that Manchin will vote yes on that and then feel obliged when Portman’s amendment is offered to vote no to avoid a conflict.

What’s strange to me is seeing Manchin, who represents a blue-collar (although very Republican) state, making cost-cutting a top priority instead of doing what he can to expedite passage. Will West Virginians who are hurting for aid prefer having UI run out in July instead of September because they’re worried about the deficit? Remember that the overall COVID package polls north of 70 percent in some surveys. A few days ago Manchin helped lower the income phase-out caps for stimulus checks and today he’s trying to limit the term for new unemployment benefits, which are good old-fashioned conservative priorities but not newfangled post-Trump populist ones. Why not just get the money out the door? Is he worried Paul Ryan will be mad at him or something?

There’s one more component to the Manchin drama. In order to make Portman’s amendment viable, the GOP has to hang together and vote yes. If any of them vote no for deficit-hawk reasons on extending UI through July, as Portman is proposing, the amendment will fail and Manchin will be forced to support Carper’s bill as the only game in town:

The poison pill can’t pass unless the entire GOP caucus joins together with Manchin to feed it to Dems. You hear that, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and other small-government types?

Here’s CNN reporter Manu Raju on the state of play as of 6 p.m. ET. I’ll update when His Majesty, King Joseph, has made his decision.

Update: So it sounds like Manchin’s going with a slightly modified version of Carper’s amendment. Instead of benefits ending a few days into October, they’ll end in September.