The Senate late Wednesday passed an unparalleled $2.2 trillion US economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The unanimous vote came despite misgivings on both sides about whether it goes too far or not far enough and capped days of difficult negotiations as Washington confronted a national challenge unlike it has ever faced.
The 880-page measure is the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared sombre and exhausted as he announced the vote — and he released senators from Washington until April 20, though he promised to recall them if needed.
“The legislation now before us now is historic because it is meant to match a historic crisis,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “Our health care system is not prepared to care for the sick. Our workers are without work. Our businesses cannot do business. Our factories lie idle. The gears of the American economy have ground to a halt.”
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The package is intended as relief for an economy spiralling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that’s killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asked how long the aid would keep the economy afloat, said: “We’ve anticipated three months. Hopefully, we won’t need this for three months.”
Underscoring the effort’s sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion annual federal budget.
Insistently optimistic, President Donald Trump said of the greatest public-health emergency in anyone’s lifetime, “I don’t think its going to end up being such a rough patch” and anticipated the economy soaring “like a rocket ship” when it’s over.
The drive by leaders to speed the bill through the Senate was slowed as four conservative Republican senators from states who economies are dominated by low-wage jobs demanded changes, saying the legislation as written might give workers like store clerks incentives to stay on unemployment instead of returning return to their jobs since they may earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re working. They settled for a failed vote to modify the provision.
Other objections floated in from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become a prominent Democrat on the national scene as the country battles the pandemic. Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other, said, “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”
Ardent liberals like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were restless as well, but top Washington Democrats assured them that a additional coronavirus legislation will follow this spring and signalled that delaying the pending measure would be foolish.
The sprawling measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.
Provides direct payments
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swung behind the bipartisan agreement, saying it “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people.”
Senate passage delivered the legislation to the Democratic-controlled House, which will most likely pass it Friday. House members are scattered around the country and the timetable for votes in that chamber was unclear.
House Democratic and Republican leaders have hoped to clear the measure for Trump’s signature by a voice vote without having to call lawmakers back to Washington.
The package 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.
It includes a controversial, heavily negotiated $500 billion program for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.
Six 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 is not an option, nor is starting over, which permitted both sides to include their priorities.
“That Washington drama does not matter any more,” McConnell said. “The Senate is going to stand together, act together, and pass this historic relief package today.”
U.S. Capitol Police officers stand atop of the U.S. Senate stairway, ahead of a vote on the coronavirus relief bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
The bill would provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $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 to an estimated $130 billion. Another $45 billion would fund additional relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for local response efforts and community services.
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.
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 per cent of workers’ paycheque up to $10,000. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2 per cent Social Security payroll tax.