$2.2 tril­lion res­cue bill clears Se­nate

Pelosi ex­pects House ap­proval on Fri­day

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ERICA WERNER, MIKE DEBONIS AND PAUL KANE

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 to 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 businesses 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 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 E. 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 es­tab­lish 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 more than 67,000 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 upand-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 at their job. Trump and Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin spoke with the ob­ject­ing se­na­tors — Ben Sasse (Neb.), Lind­sey O. Graham (S.C.), Tim Scott (S.C.) and Rick Scott (Fla.) — 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 M. 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.

One last holdup, ac­cord­ing to two con­gres­sional aides, sur­rounded a fi­nal con­di­tion for the more than $500 bil­lion 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. That would sug­gest that Trumpowned 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 J. 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.

The unem­ploy­ment sys­tem isn’t de­signed to han­dle the surge of new ap­pli­cants for job­less claims, so 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.” The pres­i­dent 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-and­forth. 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.

BON­NIE JO MOUNT/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A pedes­trian waits Wed­nes­day to cross a de­serted M Street dur­ing what nor­mally would be rush hour in Wash­ing­ton’s Ge­orge­town neigh­bor­hood. The Dis­trict or­dered all nonessen­tial businesses to close as of 10 p.m. Wed­nes­day and urged res­i­dents to stay home.

TOM BREN­NER/REUTERS

Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is in­ter­viewed Wed­nes­day af­ter ne­go­tia­tors agreed with the White House on a bill to pump $2 tril­lion into the econ­omy. Some Repub­li­cans had balked late at what Schumer has de­scribed as “unem­ploy­ment in­sur­ance on steroids,” say­ing the bill’s pro­vi­sions would en­cour­age peo­ple not to work.

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