Pandemic spurs U.S. Senate to pass historic aid package

The U.S. Capitol. (Credit: Toni Smith, USGS. Public domain

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate late Wednesday night approved a $2 trillion spending bill that aims to provide economic relief for workers and businesses and to aid hospitals and states reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chamber voted 96-0 to pass the bill in an unusual display of bipartisanship.

“This is not the first step Congress has taken to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, nor will it be the last. This bill provides significant financial relief to our families and businesses struggling with the effects of widespread closures and other public health measures,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat. “It greatly expands access to unemployment benefits – including, for the first time, gig workers, contractors and the self-employed – and includes tax credits and other incentives I negotiated with the Trump Administration to help small businesses keep workers on payroll and keep them from going out of business during this crisis.”

Warner said the bill constitutes a “a massive infusion of resources for hospitals, frontline caregivers, and states and localities dealing with the brunt of COVID-19” and strongly urged the House to pass it “without delay.”

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who tested positive for COVID-19, was among the four Republican senators who missed the vote. Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney were under self-quarantine and John Thune of South Dakota was feeling ill.

The bill could become law as soon as this week. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) alerted his colleagues late Wednesday night that the House plans to consider the measure on Friday morning.

The White House has signaled its support for the deal. President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter early Thursday, “96-0 in the United States Senate. Congratulations AMERICA!”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised the passage of the relief package amid a “kind of crisis that is totally unprecedented in living memory.” And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) welcomed historic legislation meant to “match an historic” crisis. “It will be worth it,” Schumer said.

If approved by the U.S. House and signed into law by Trump, the measure would be the largest economic stimulus package enacted by the U.S. government.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said early Thursday that her chamber would take up the bill “with strong bipartisan support.”

Hoyer said Wednesday that he expects the bill to pass by a voice vote, which would allow most lawmakers to stay in their districts due to limited flight options and stay-at-home orders in some states.

A significant piece of the Senate’s plan is a dramatic increase in unemployment insurance benefits. That would include about $600 per person per week in federal money, which would be in addition to what people get from states.

That portion of the bill became a sticking point in the negotiations. Some Senate Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued that the unemployment benefits would disincentivize people from working. Graham called the provision “Bernie Sanders on steroids,” Business Insider reported.

Individuals would also receive direct checks of $1,200 per person for many adults and $500 for dependent children. The amounts would be less for those with higher incomes and could be sent out within the coming weeks, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey told reporters on Wednesday.

The package also includes nearly $380 billion to boost small businesses. Through that program, loans to cover payroll and other necessary business costs would be available to companies that employ up to 500 people. Those loans could ultimately be forgiven, Toomey said, “so what it really means is the federal government is paying the payroll for small businesses.”

The Senate bill also includes about $100 billion that would go directly to hospitals and other health care providers.

Another $500 billion would go toward a lending fund for industries, cities and states. Medium- to large-sized companies could receive a 50% tax credit toward their payroll.

States would receive $150 billion that would be allocated principally by population, Toomey said. State governments would have broad discretion on how to spend their share in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This bill, if enacted, would mark the third major coronavirus response package finalized in recent weeks as Washington has scrambled to buoy the health care system and provide economic relief. But it’s not expected to be the last legislation aimed at tackling the crisis.

McConnell said senators aren’t scheduled to reconvene until Monday, April 20. But he added that lawmakers would “stay nimble” if circumstances change.

Schumer said on the floor late Wednesday night, “None of us can know when this plague will pass.”