$2T virus res­cue bill hits Se­nate snags

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drew Tay­lor and Lisa Mas­caro

WASH­ING­TON » Se­nate lead­ers raced to un­ravel last-minute snags Wed­nes­day and win pas­sage of an unparallel­ed $2 tril­lion eco­nomic res­cue pack­age steer­ing aid to busi­nesses, work­ers and health care sys­tems en­gulfed by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

The mea­sure is the largest eco­nomic re­lief bill in his­tory, and both par­ties’ lead­ers were des­per­ate for quick pas­sage of a bill aimed at a virus that is cost­ing lives and jobs by the hour.

The pack­age is in­tended as a week­s­long or month­s­long patch for an econ­omy spi­ral­ing into re­ces­sion or worse and a na­tion fac­ing a grim toll from an in­fec­tion that’s killed nearly 20,000 peo­ple world­wide.

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.

“A fight has ar­rived on our shores,” said Se­nate Ma­jor­ity

Leader Mitch McCon­nell. “We did not seek it, we did not want it, but now we’re go­ing to win it.”

“Big help, quick help, is on the way,” said Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer.

But the drive by lead­ers to speed the bill through the Se­nate was slowed as four con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can sen­a­tors de­manded changes, say­ing the leg­is­la­tion as writ­ten “in­cen­tivizes lay­offs” and should be al­tered to en­sure em­ploy­ees don’t earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re work­ing.

Com­pli­cat­ing the stand­off, Sen. Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont, whose cam­paign for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion has flagged, said he would block the bill un­less the con­ser­va­tives dropped their ob­jec­tions.

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.”

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Joe Bi­den said the pack­age “goes a long way.” He said it will re­quire strong over­sight to en­sure the wealthy don’t ben­e­fit at the ex­pense of work­ers and pro­posed for­giv­ing at least $10,000 of stu­dent loan debt as part of the fed­eral re­sponse.

McCon­nell and Schumer hoped pas­sage of the leg­is­la­tion in the Repub­li­can­led Se­nate would come by the end of the day. Stocks posted their first back-to­back gains in weeks as the pack­age took shape over the last two days, but much of Wed­nes­day’s early rally faded as the hitch de­vel­oped in the Se­nate. The mar­ket is down nearly 27% since set­ting a record high a month ago.

Se­nate pas­sage would leave fi­nal congressio­nal ap­proval up to the Demo­cratic-con­trolled House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, DCalif., said the bi­par­ti­san agree­ment “takes us a long way down the road in meet­ing the needs of the Amer­i­can peo­ple” but she stopped short of fully en­dors­ing it.

“House Democrats will now re­view the fi­nal pro­vi­sions and leg­isla­tive text of the agree­ment to de­ter­mine a course of ac­tion,” she said.

House mem­bers are scat­tered around the coun­try and the timetable for votes in that cham­ber is un­clear.

House Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can lead­ers have hoped to clear the mea­sure for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s sig­na­ture by a voice vote without hav­ing to call law­mak­ers back to Wash­ing­ton. But that may prove chal­leng­ing, as the bill is sure to be op­posed by some con­ser­va­tives up­set at its cost and scope. Ar­dent lib­er­als were rest­less as well.

White House aide Eric Ue­land an­nounced the agree­ment in a Capi­tol hall­way Wed­nes­day, shortly af­ter mid­night, cap­ping days of of­ten in­tense hag­gling and mount­ing pres­sure. The word­ing of some fi­nal pieces of the agree­ment need to be com­pleted.

The sprawl­ing, 500-page­plus 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.

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.

One of the last is­sues to close con­cerned $500 bil­lion for guaranteed, sub­si­dized loans to larger in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing a fight over how gen­er­ous to be with the air­lines. Hos­pi­tals would get sig­nif­i­cant help as well.

McCon­nell, a key ne­go­tia­tor, said the pack­age will “rush new re­sources onto the front lines 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 Amer­i­cans work­ers, families, small busi­nesses and in­dus­tries make it through this dis­rup­tion and emerge on the other side ready to soar.”

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.

“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.”

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 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.

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 ad­don, with gig work­ers like Uber driv­ers cov­ered for the first time.

Schumer said busi­nesses con­trolled by mem­bers of Congress and top ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing Trump and his im­me­di­ate fam­ily mem­bers — would be in­el­i­gi­ble for the bill’s busi­ness as­sis­tance.

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.

But Cuomo said the Se­nate pack­age would send less than $4 bil­lion to New York, far short of his es­ti­mate that the cri­sis will cost his state up to $15 bil­lion over the next year. More than 280 New York­ers have died from the virus, a death toll more than double that of any other state.

Pelosi was a force be­hind $400 mil­lion in grants to states to ex­pand vot­ing by mail and other steps that Democrats billed as mak­ing vot­ing safer but Repub­li­can crit­ics said was po­lit­i­cal op­por­tunism. The pack­age also con­tains $15.5 bil­lion more for a surge in demand for food stamps.

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.

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.

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 bank res­cue, of­fi­cials said.

Europe is en­act­ing its own eco­nomic re­cov­ery pack­ages, with huge amounts of credit guar­an­tees, govern­ment spend­ing and other sup­port.

Germany alone, Europe’s big­gest econ­omy, has agreed to com­mit over 1 tril­lion eu­ros ($1.1 tril­lion) in fis­cal stim­u­lus and sup­port — roughly 30 per­cent of that na­tion’s en­tire an­nual out­put.

France, Spain and Italy have launched sim­i­lar pro­grams. The Euro­pean Union has sus­pended lim­its it im­poses on mem­ber coun­tries’ bor­row­ing and deficits, free­ing them to spend more.

Some of Europe’s fis­cal stim­u­lus kicks in au­to­mat­i­cally without any new leg­is­la­tion due to so­cial welfare safety nets that are more ex­ten­sive than in the U.S.

AN­DREW HARNIK — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell gives a thumbs up as he leaves the Se­nate cham­ber on Capi­tol Hill in Wash­ing­ton on Wed­nes­day.

EVAN VUCCI — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this March 13 photo, Dr. An­thony Fauci, direc­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and Infectious Dis­eases, ad­justs the mi­cro­phone to speak dur­ing a news con­fer­ence on the coro­n­avirus with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in the Rose Gar­den at the White House in Wash­ing­ton.

SE­NATE TELE­VI­SION

In this im­age from video, Sen. Lind­sey Graham, R-S.C., speaks on the Se­nate floor at the U.S. Capi­tol in Wash­ing­ton on Tuesday.

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