'Our Expectation Is This Bill Passes Tonight'

14 hours ago
Originally published on March 25, 2020 8:46 pm

Updated at 6:57 p.m. ET

A bipartisan deal on a $2 trillion economic relief package received a major boost late Wednesday despite criticism from some Republican senators who had concerns over its unemployment assistance provision.

"We couldn't be more pleased with the unprecedented response from the Senate to protect American workers and American business in this situation," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the daily White House coronavirus task force briefing, flanked by President Trump, Vice President Pence and others.

"Our expectation is this bill passes tonight and gets to the House tomorrow and they pass it," he added.

A group of Senate Republicans — Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott, Ben Sasse and Rick Scott — had voiced last-minute concerns, saying the bill's unemployment assistance provision allows jobless Americans to make more money under unemployment than if they were working normally.

Trump said, however, that the Senate was close to passing the bill, urged the House to follow suit and said he would immediately sign it.

Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell touted the bipartisan deal reached overnight to provide cash payments to Americans, help to struggling small businesses and more resources to state and local governments, as well as to hospitals.

He also acknowledged it was only one part of the overall response needed.

"Nobody thinks legislation can end this [coronavirus crisis]," McConnell said Wednesday. "We cannot outlaw the virus. And no economic policy can fully end the hardship so long as the public health requires that we put so much of our commerce on ice. This isn't even a stimulus package. It is emergency relief. That's what this is."

Watch video of the Senate floor live.

McConnell noted that much of the $2 trillion legislation is built on the proposal that Senate Republicans unveiled on Sunday, and he downplayed changes Democrats were touting. He said he would leave it to others to decide whether "the last few changes merited three days of delay in the face of this worsening crisis."

"That Washington drama does not matter anymore. The Senate is going to stand together, act together and pass this historic relief package today," McConnell said.

He said he would set a time for a procedural vote to advance the bill after discussing it with the Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer. Portions of the legislation were being released piecemeal on Wednesday afternoon.

The Senate had expected to vote on the bill shortly after the procedural vote Wednesday, prior to the objections of the small group of Republican senators. House Democrats are holding a series of calls to review the bill, and if the bill is approved by the Senate on Wednesday, the House could take it up quickly.

But in a letter to the Democratic caucus, Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he remained "committed to giving House Members 24 hours' notice before the House acts." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was reviewing the text.

The deal comes after days of intense negotiations and false starts among McConnell, Schumer and Mnuchin. McConnell, R-Ky., and Schumer, D-N.Y., announced news of a breakthrough on the Senate floor shortly after 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.

The plan marks the largest rescue package in American history. The legislation covers an array of programs, including direct payments to Americans, an aggressive expansion of unemployment insurance, billions of dollars in aid to large and small businesses and a new wave of significant funding for the health care industry.

"We're going to take up and pass this package to care for those who are now caring for us and help carry millions of Americans through these dark economic times," Schumer said.

Last weekend, Democrats had walked away from bipartisan talks among senators in favor of negotiating more directly with Mnuchin and the White House to get a final deal that reflected more of their priorities.

McConnell chafed at the tactics but supported the end result. "It's taken a lot of noise and a lot of rhetoric to get us here," he said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.

This is the third piece of bipartisan legislation this month to address the coronavirus pandemic, with two emergency stimulus bills already signed into law. But this latest deal eclipses the earlier packages in scope and spending.

The agreement is an expansion of a Republican legislative proposal issued last week, dubbed the CARES Act — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — to provide relief to virtually every rung of the U.S. economic ladder.

Earlier this week, Democrats delayed negotiations because they wanted to include more conditions on the loan fund for corporations, more money for hospitals and more generous unemployment benefits. Democrats secured concessions on all three in the final deal.

Among the deal's key provisions:

  • The plan will rush financial assistance to Americans with direct checks to households in the middle class and in lower income levels, McConnell said. Previously, Republicans said this would amount to $1,200 to most American adults, among other payments.
  • An extended unemployment insurance program for laid-off workers that will allow for four months of "full pay," according to Schumer, rather than the usual three months for most. It will also raise the maximum unemployment insurance benefit by $600 per week. It will apply to traditional workers for small and large businesses as well as those who are self-employed and workers in the gig economy. This was a key Democratic initiative, which Schumer dubbed "unemployment insurance on steroids." (The group of Senate Republicans then opposed this provision later Wednesday, saying it provides a disincentive for people to go back to work once the crisis subsides. "We cannot encourage people to make more money in unemployment than we do in employment," South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott told reporters.)
  • More than $150 billion for the health care system, including funding for hospitals, research, treatment and the Strategic National Stockpile to raise supplies of ventilators, masks and other equipment. Of that, $100 billion will go to hospitals and the health system and $1 billion to the Indian Health Service.
  • $150 billion to state and local governments to address spending shortages related to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • $350 billion in the form of loans for small businesses impacted by the pandemic; some of those loans could be forgiven.

The plan also includes several Democratic oversight initiatives. Among those, it creates a Treasury Department special inspector general for pandemic recovery and a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to oversee loans to businesses.

It also prohibits businesses controlled by the president, vice president, members of Congress and heads of executive departments from participating in the loan or investment programs, Schumer's office said. In addition, children, spouses and other relatives will also be banned, it said.

There are also provisions to ban stock buybacks for the term of government assistance, plus an additional year for any company receiving a government loan from the bill. In addition, it establishes worker protections attached to federal loans for businesses, and it prohibits airlines from using the funds for CEO bonuses.

Schumer was backed up in negotiations by Pelosi, D-Calif., who returned to Washington on Sunday and called the initial McConnell proposal a "nonstarter." House Democrats introduced a competing measure on Monday in the event a Senate deal collapsed.

Pelosi recently negotiated the second coronavirus package directly with Mnuchin and without McConnell's involvement. That package, estimated to cost more than $100 billion, provided for new paid sick leave benefits and funds to expedite access to coronavirus testing. Republicans were tepid about the package, but Trump endorsed it and it ultimately passed Congress with the support of 90% of lawmakers in both chambers.

Schumer has pledged that once a deal is reached, Democrats will not block expedited consideration. Congress can pass legislation by unanimous consent if no lawmaker objects. It is unclear whether lawmakers will be able to find that level of unity, but the urgency to vote and adjourn was widespread. Pelosi indicated in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday that she may try to get unanimous consent to clear the deal through the House chamber to save House lawmakers from flying back to Washington to pass it. House Republicans are strongly behind the measure, according to a senior GOP leadership congressional source.

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