US Senate passes $2 trillion economic stimulus; House to vote Friday

Passage came after long day of negotiations, snag over unemployment benefits

The Senate unanimously passed a $2 trillion stimulus package late Wednesday that provides emergency relief for American workers and businesses during one of the worst-ever economic crises in U.S. history caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill will next face a vote on Friday in the U.S. House of Representatives, where members are expected to swiftly pass it by voice vote as many lawmakers remained out of town amid the outbreak, CNBC reported.

Just hours earlier, GOP senators reached a deal to allow the legislation to pass after a long and fierce day of negotiations in Washington, according to a report by The Hill.

After initially announcing an agreement overnight Tuesday, Senate legislators wrestled with the bill for more than 20 hours, working out the final details, some of which cramped negotiations down the stretch.

Legislation hit snag

One hurdle emerged in the afternoon when several GOP senators  threatened to delay the legislation over a proposed increase to unemployment insurance, according to NBC News.

Sens. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, said the bill could provide a “strong incentive for employees to be laid off instead of going to work” because some people could theoretically make more by being unemployed, the network reported.

“We must sadly oppose the fast-tracking of this bill until this text is addressed, or the Department of Labor issues regulatory guidance that no American would earn more by not working than by working.”

CNBC reported Sen. Bernie Sanders was directly involved in the dispute with Republicans.

By Wednesday night, however, The Hill reported Scott, Graham and Sasse had agreed to drop their objections and fast-track the bill in exchange for a vote to amend the package for unemployment benefits to be capped at 100 percent of workers’ salaries as the bill provides for $600 in federal dollars on top of state unemployment.

The amendment needed 60 votes, but failed to pass on a party-line vote, The Hill reported.

Reports say Graham pushed for capping unemployment benefits at no more than 100% of income because he felt an additional federal payment would ultimately lead to weak hiring in states with low per capita income, The Hill reported.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also told reporters “yes, it’s a problem,” that the Senate bill would mean some Americans get unemployment benefits worth more than their usual salary.

Now that the hurdle has cleared, the U.S. House of Representatives will likely vote on the bill Thursday or Friday, according to earlier reports.

President Donald Trump was expected to sign it as soon as it reached his desk, according to Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin.

As the bill made the rounds in the House and beyond, lawmakers failed to reach full consensus and adjourned before lunch without passing it.

Meanwhile across the country, wary Americans continued to face layoffs and growing financial strain as businesses shuttered and orders to stay home amid the outbreak remained in effect.

Relief for workers

The stimulus is expected to provide immediate relief to workers in the form of checks that will be mailed sometime between April and May, according to reports.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Trump detailed some of the items devoted to unemployment benefits in the stimulus package, which he said is about “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The bill proposed would offer $300 billion in direct payments to those earning less than $99,000 annually, Trump detailed in a news conference Wednesday.

“That would be $3,400 very quickly for the typical family of four,” he said. “Nothing like that’s ever been done in our country.”

He also noted that $250 billion is designated to cover “100% of salary” for up to four months for workers who were full time, contract or self-employed. Another $350 billion is suggested to funnel to small businesses to help them continue to pay workers no matter the current status of activity due to the coronavirus.

“This will allow our economy to accelerate as soon as we beat the virus,” the president said.

Senate Democrats and the White House first reached the deal in the predawn hours of Wednesday morning.

As the sun rose on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave lukewarm support to the stimulus bill, but did say “I’m optimistic” about the final passage.

"America is facing a grave health crisis with a serious impact on our economy. I salute the strong leadership of Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats," Pelosi said, as reported by Fox News. "I especially thank our House Democratic Committee chairmen, who worked hard to move the Republican proposal from corporations-focused to workers-first and who will now review the legislative text of this agreement with our caucus."

House Democratic and Republican leaders had hoped to clear the measure for Trump’s signature by a voice vote without having to call lawmakers back to Washington.

In the House, McCarthy later said he was opposed passing the bill through unanimous consent and called instead for a voice vote — which would allow those who oppose the legislation the right to say so, according to PBS NewsHour.

Ardent liberals were restless as well.

As the day wore on, there was more partisan haggling in both houses of Congress that pushed negotiations late into the night for a second straight day.

In the House, members of the New York delegation took issue with the Senate bill, saying it doesn’t do enough for the region that has become the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed frustration earlier, describing the federal response to his state so far as “a drop in the bucket” and then added that the relief bill was “terrible for New York.”

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The sprawling, 880-page-plus measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest, building on earlier efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.

It would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

The legislation also blocks any payment from going to Trump’s properties.

Coronavirus Outbreak in US 'Might Be Bad,' Warns CDC On Tuesday, CDC official Dr. Nancy Messonnier urged "the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad." Dr. Nancy Messonnier, via 'The New York Times' Secretary of health and human services, Alex M. Azar II, also made a serious statement regarding the coronavirus on Tuesday. Alex M. Azar II, via 'The New York Times' The secretary stated that more hospital ventilators and as many as 300 million masks will be necessary f

One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight about how generous to be with the airlines.

Behind the scenes, reports say the stimulus includes a $17 billion federal loan program for businesses deemed “critical to maintaining national security,” a measure that would help Boeing, The Washington Post reported.

The government reportedly wants to take an equity stake in airlines receiving federal funding under the Senate bill, according to CNBC. The aid to airlines will be in the form of direct grants that don’t have to be paid back, but the companies would be prohibited from making layoffs through a date later this year.

Hospitals would get significant help as well.

“After days of intense discussions, the Senate has reached a bipartisan agreement on a historic relief package for this pandemic,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, a key negotiator.

“It will rush new resources onto the frontlines of our nation’s health care fight. And it will inject trillions of dollars of cash into the economy as fast as possible to help American workers, families, small businesses and industries make it through this disruption and emerge on the other side ready to soar.”

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Five days of arduous talks produced the bill, creating tensions among Congress’ top leaders, who each took care to tend to party politics as they maneuvered and battled over crafting the legislation. But failure was never an option, which permitted both sides to mark big wins.

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Even before the deal was reached, news of the likely but elusive agreement had sent the stock market rocketing on Tuesday. The rescue package would be larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

The package would give one-time direct payments to Americans — $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year, and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child.

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks at Schumer’s insistence. Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal disaster agency.

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Democrats said the package would help replace the salaries of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600 per week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time.

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Schumer said businesses controlled by members of Congress and top administration officials — including Trump and his immediate family members — would be ineligible for assistance from receiving loans or investments from new Treasury programs. The New York Democrat immediately sent out a roster of negotiating wins for transit systems, hospital, and cash-hungry state governments that were cemented after Democrats blocked the measure in votes held Sunday and Monday to maneuver for such gains.

Republicans won inclusion of an “employee retention” tax credit that’s estimated to provide $50 billion to companies that retain employees on payroll and cover 50% of workers’ paychecks. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax.

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Democrats pointed to gains for hospitals, additional oversight of the huge industry stabilization fund and money for cash-strapped states. A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to more than $300 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters — including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.

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To provide transparency, the package is expected to create a new inspector general and oversight board for the corporate dollars, much as was done during the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program bank rescue, officials said.

At the White House on Tuesday, even as the public health crisis deepened, President Donald Trump expressed eagerness to nudge many people back to work in the coming weeks and held out a prospect, based more on hope than science, that the country could be returning to normal in less than a month.

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“We have to go back to work, much sooner than people thought,” Trump told a Fox News town hall. He said he’d like to have the country “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter, April 12. But in a White House briefing later, Trump said that “our decision will be based on hard facts and data.”

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Medical professionals say social distancing needs to be stepped up, not relaxed, to slow the spread of infections. At the White House briefing, the public health authorities said it was particularly important for people in the hard-hit New York City metropolitan area to quarantine themselves for 14 days and for those who have recently left the city to do the same.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said pointedly at the briefing, “No one is going to want to tone down anything when you see what is going on in a place like New York City.”

—The Associated Press, and Tim Darnell and Stephanie Toone contributed to this report for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.