Senate “Vote-a-Rama” Yields COVID-19 Relief Plan

On February 5, by a party vote of 51-50, the Senate adopted an FY 2021 Budget Resolution proposal that will instruct congressional committees to write a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation bill based on President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan. Referred to as a “vote-a-rama,” the lengthy amendment process in the Senate involved approximately 900 amendments to be considered rapidly, resulting in hours of votes. This process is required for reconciliation, which would shrink the vote hurdle from a two-thirds majority (60 votes) to a simple majority (51 votes) to pass the new budget resolution. It also allows for both sides of the aisle to offer amendments reflecting policy priorities of each major party, and many were criticized by both sides for having little to do with COVID-19 relief. Attention now turns to the House of Representatives, who will again vote to approve to move forward in the process of crafting the reconciliation bill.

On February 3, President Biden encouraged lawmakers to move swiftly to reach a deal on COVID-19 relief, citing a rise in behavioral health problems and the approaching expiration of unemployment benefits. President Biden identified his sticking points from his $1.9 trillion proposal, including the $1,400 stimulus checks for Americans. The President clarified that he and Democratic lawmakers should be open to negotiating who would qualify for the checks in the final deal, a notable position as a group of bipartisan Senators are filing an amendment that would restrict the next round of stimulus checks to lower income workers.

On February 1, President Biden met with a group of Republican Senators who proposed a $618 billion coronavirus-relief counter-offer to his expansive plan. The GOP proposal would deliver $20 billion for K-12 education, omitting higher education and suggesting a significant decrease from Biden’s plan, which would provide $170 billion for education overall. The White House has not yet announced a deadline for the relief legislation but has expressed urgency for Congress to deliver robust aid to the American people.

Cardona Testifies; Nomination Process Continues to Fill Biden’s Cabinet

On February 3, Secretary of Education Nominee Miguel Cardona testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) praised Cardona alongside Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME), indicating bipartisan support for President Biden’s nomination. Cardona faced questions from Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) on how Cardona’s leadership at the Department of Education would ensure students with disabilities may access and succeed in higher education. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) led the Committee in questioning Cardona on plans for student loan forgiveness. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) inquired how the federal government can support efforts to combat the significant increase in mental health needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cardona met their questions with a readiness to work with lawmakers to ensure the best for students and educators alike.


The Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) emphasized the need for federal dollars to help struggling postsecondary institutions and students meet basic needs. Cardona promised to work with students and institutions to identify how best to allocate federal funds and repeatedly promised to uphold the civil rights of all students, which Senator Murray noted would be instrumental in the overhaul of the Trump administration’s Title IX regulations. In the coming days, the HELP Committee is expected to vote to advance Cardona’s nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.


On February 2, Alejandro Mayorkas was confirmed as the secretary of homeland security; he will be the first immigrant to serve in the role. On February 3, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s nomination to serve as Commerce secretary, advancing the nomination for a full Senate vote.  The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee also advanced Denis McDonough’s nomination to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. The schedule of the upcoming Senate committee meetings and hearings for the week of February 8-12 is available here.

Judge Safeguards OPT; Biden Rescinds Compliance Unit Order

On January 28, U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Columbia Reggie B. Walton issued an opinion following his November order that upholds the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Optional Practical Training (OPT) Program. The November decision confirmed the department’s authority to authorize Optional Practical Training, including the OPT-STEM extension. OPT offers eligible international students the opportunity to gain real-world work experience in their field of study through temporary employment in the U.S. (see CGS policy brief and explainer video on OPT).


Judge Walton’s opinion states that DHS has the authority to enforce immigration laws that allow student visa holders the ability to participate in employment for “practical training purposes.” Additionally, he explains that DHS’s interpretations of immigration law have remained valid in the eyes of Congress through repeated amendments. The plaintiff, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers Union, has filed an appeal challenging Judge Walton’s ruling.


The continuation of OPT was uncertain during the Trump administration, facing critiques that the program increased competition for jobs for American workers. On January 13, the Trump administration’s DHS announced an OPT compliance unit that would monitor the program to ensure that involved parties are operating in a manner consistent with regulatory and statutory law. On January 26, the Biden administration rescinded the message, citing that additional reviews of the program determined that the compliance goals of the January 13 announcement are already being met, and thus, the new unit would not be necessary.

Dept. of Ed Letter Encourages Pursuit of Higher Education

On January 29, the Department of Education sent a letter highlighting efforts to help Americans pursue higher education during the pandemic. Following President Biden’s January 22 Executive Order that directs all federal agencies to address the current economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, the Department of Education encourages financial aid administrators to consider the special circumstances that may arise for students and families during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The letter, sent by the Office of Federal Student Aid, recommends administrators exercise judgement in adjusting a student’s or parent’s financial aid eligibility, especially for those receiving unemployment benefits. Adjusted financial aid eligibility could increase the likelihood that applicants be awarded a Pell Grant or possibly a larger loan.


CGS applauds the letter, which could expand access to financial resources for students. CGS also continues to advocate for graduate student access to specific federal financial aid programs, such as the Pell Grant Program, highlighted in a new policy brief: Maximizing Pell Grants to Support Graduate Students.

NEA Announces Two Funding Programs’ Guidelines

On February 1, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced research award guidelines for two funding programs offered through the Office of Research and Analysis. The programs, Research Grants in the Arts and NEA Research Labs, fund research studies in the arts and non-arts sectors. Based on program criteria, funding amounts between $10,000 and $150,000 will be awarded. The upcoming deadline for both programs is March 29, 2021. Questions should be directed to the Office of Research & Analysis staff at