The Senate unanimously passed a $2.2 trillion emergency relief bill Wednesday night aimed at limiting the financial trauma that the coronavirus pandemic is inflicting on the United States, and lawmakers acted with unusual speed to produce the largest economic rescue package in the nation’s history.
The sprawling legislation, which passed 96-0, would send checks to more than 150 million American households, set up enormous loan programs for businesses large and small, pump money into unemployment insurance programs, greatly boost spending on hospitals, and much more.
Illustrating how grave the situation has become in the United States, the most liberal and conservative senators joined to support the mammoth spending bill.
The legislation’s goal is to flood the economy with money at a time of nearly unprecedented financial chaos, with entire states on lockdown, many business closed, and the number of infections and deaths from the coronavirus quickly on the rise.
The Senate vote sends the bill to the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., expects it to be approved Friday morning. President Donald Trump said he intends to sign it immediately.
“Our nation obviously is going through a kind of crisis that is totally unprecedented in living memory,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said ahead of the vote, after which the Senate intended to recess until April 20 unless urgent legislative action is needed before then.
“Let’s stay connected and continue to collaborate on the best ways to keep helping our states and our country through this pandemic,” McConnell said. “Let’s continue to pray for one another, for all of our families, and for our country.”
In a fresh reminder of the dangers reaching into the Capitol itself, a spokesman for Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the No. 2 Senate Republican, announced just minutes before the vote that Thune was returning to South Dakota to self-quarantine because he was feeling unwell.
The vote came on the eve of the release of new figures from the Labor Department on the number of workers who applied for unemployment benefits during the week ending March 21. The number is expected to set a record, with estimates ranging from 2 million to 4 million. The prior record was just under 700,000 during a week in October 1982.
“The gears of the American economy have ground to a halt,” said Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “Our country has faced immense challenges before, but rarely so many at the same time.”
The bill would extend $1,200 to most American adults and $500 for most children, create a $500 billion lending program for businesses, cities and states, and a $367 billion employee retention fund for small businesses. It would direct $130 billion to hospitals and provide four months of expanded unemployment insurance, among other things.
Lawmakers and the White House were bombarded with lobbyists and special interest groups seeking assistance during the negotiations, and the price tag rose from $850 billion to $2.2 trillion in just a matter of days.
With confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States climbing swiftly to over 65,000 Wednesday with more than 900 deaths, lawmakers acknowledged that no amount of economic relief from Congress could stop the pain for the American public. In addition to layoffs, many workers are dealing with salary reductions or furloughs. And despite Trump’s push to restart much of the economy by April 12, there are growing signs that the drag on business could last well into the second half of the year.
Wednesday night’s vote capped drama-filled days of up-and-down negotiations over legislation originally introduced by McConnell a week ago, but which Democrats viewed as unacceptably tilted toward corporations. They negotiated major changes, including an approximately $250 billion increase in spending on unemployment benefits that would expand eligibility and allow laid-off workers to receive an additional $600 a week for four months, on top of the benefits their state unemployment agencies pay.
Schumer touted the measure as “unemployment insurance on steroids,” but in one of the final hang-ups Wednesday a group of four conservative senators raised concerns that the program would provide incentives for people to leave the workforce since in some cases they might end up making more on unemployment than would at their job. Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke with the objecting senators – Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Rick Scott of Florida – with Mnuchin explaining that it was the most efficient way to structure the program since the alternative would require working with a patchwork of different state unemployment systems.
An amendment the senators offered to try to scale back the new program was defeated Wednesday.
Late resistance also came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who voiced complaints Wednesday that the legislation didn’t do enough to help his state, the hardest-hit in the country by the virus, where doctors and hospitals are pleading for relief.
Ohe final holdup, according to two congressional aides, surrounded one final condition for the more than half-trillion in corporate rescue funding: Schumer insisted on language requiring the terms of those loans to be disclosed to the public within seven days. The change was made, and the final bill circulated to Senate offices shortly after 10 p.m.
The legislation ensures that taxpayer-backed loans cannot go to firms controlled by Trump, other White House officials or members of Congress. This would suggest that Trump-owned properties, including hotels that have been hurt by the downturn, cannot seek taxpayer assistance.
The airline industry, which has suffered huge losses in the past two months because of canceled flights and travel restrictions, would be a top recipient in the bill. Passenger airlines would qualify for $25 billion in loans and certain other guarantees and could have access to $25 billion in things like grants, which might not have to be repaid.
Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said he would have preferred long-term low-interest loans to airlines instead of grants, “But we had this argument, we had this discussion, and it turned out the way it did.”
Cargo airlines and suppliers would qualify for a different batch of money.
And another provision of the bill would authorize $17 billion in assistance for companies deemed crucial for national security, language that was written in part to ensure assistance for Boeing, three people with knowledge of the internal deliberations said.
There’s also an employee retention tax credit for many firms hurt by the coronavirus fallout and provisions to allow businesses to defer payment of payroll taxes for two years.
Even with all the new funding in the bill, the unemployment system isn’t designed to handle the surge of new applicants for jobless claims, but even with all the new funding, it’s unclear how smoothly any of the changes might work. For example, the bill would dramatically expand the Small Business Administration’s ability to guarantee loans, but millions of companies could seek these guarantees all at once, putting enormous pressure on a system that has never been tested in such a manner.
After falling 10,000 points in two months, the Dow Jones industrial average regained more than 2,500 points on Tuesday and Wednesday amid optimism about the recovery package. The precise impact of the legislation could take months to understand. Many businesses have been hammered, perhaps beyond repair, by the economic impact of the virus.
Trump has signaled he wants some parts of the economy to reopen quickly, but many of the country’s biggest economic engines – such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco – are seeing problems escalate.
As the bill was coming together in the final days, Democrats fought to make numerous changes. For example, the White House and Republicans agreed to allow an oversight board and create a Treasury Department special inspector general for pandemic recovery to scrutinize the lending decisions and detect abusive or fraudulent behavior.
“Every loan document will be public and made available to Congress very quickly so we can see where the money is going, what the terms are and if it’s fair to the American people,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
The bill also contains a grab-bag of provisions that in some cases seem to range far afield from the coronavirus pandemic, including $13 million for Howard University, $25 million for Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and $75 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Senate aides said those allocations and others were justified to help the institutions prepare for and respond to the coronavirus outbreak.
Although Republicans have been attacking the inclusion of funding for the Kennedy Center, Trump said he personally approved it, saying, “the Kennedy Center has suffered greatly.” Trump noted that it started out as a Democratic request, adding, “You know, it works that way. The Democrats have treated us fairly. I really believe that we’ve had a very good back and forth. And I say that with respect to Chuck Schumer.”
Trump acknowledged, though, that assisting an institution like the Kennedy Center might come across like “not a good sound bite, but that’s the way life works.”
Now that the Senate has passed the bill, the steps ahead in the House are a little less clear. The House is out of session, and many members have voiced concerns about returning to the tight quarters of the Capitol, with at least two House members testing positive for the coronavirus and others in quarantine.
Pelosi had favored passing the bill by “unanimous consent,” which would require agreement from all members of the chamber. But one prominent liberal – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. – has already suggested she could oppose it.
Another option, which Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., endorsed Wednesday, would be to pass the legislation by “voice vote” in the House. That could allow any members who wanted to debate the issue publicly to do so, before passing the legislation without a roll-call vote that would require a quorum to be present. McCarthy suggested time for debate should be allowed on the House floor.
“I know we’re in a very challenging time . . . but I don’t think we should pass a $2 trillion package by unanimous consent,” he said. Pelosi said later that she, too, would support the “voice vote” route, and “I’d like to see a good debate on the floor.”
Congress has already passed two much smaller coronavirus relief bills: an $8.3 billion emergency supplemental package for the health-care system and a $100-billion-plus bill to boost paid sick leave and unemployment insurance and provide free coronavirus testing.