Senate to vote on $2 trillion coronavirus bill after landmark agreement with White House

Senate to vote on $2 trillion coronavirus bill after landmark agreement with White House

The Senate plans to vote Wednesday afternoon on a $2 trillion stimulus package that is designed to flood the U.S. economy with money in an effort to stabilize households and businesses that have been floored by the coronavirus outbreak.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced the breakthrough on the Senate floor around 1:30 a.m., after a long day of talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other administration officials. Senate leaders plan to vote on the bill later Wednesday, though aides were still scrambling to write it.

“This is a very important bipartisan piece of legislation that is going to be very important to help American workers, American business and people across America,” Mnuchin told reporters early Wednesday morning. “We couldn’t be more pleased.”


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave an upbeat assessment of the bill early Wednesday, but the logistics of the legislation’s passage through the House remain unclear. The House could likely vote as soon as Thursday on the measure, but New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was demanding changes on Wednesday and it appeared it was taking lawmakers longer than expected to release the final text. Nearly half of the country’s 55,000 cases are in New York, and the health care system around New York City is completely overwhelmed.

Cuomo said the bill would be “terrible” for his state and added that “We need the House to make adjustments.”

The Senate bill, unprecedented in its size and scope, would send $1,200 checks to many Americans, create a $367 billion loan program for small businesses, and establish a $500 billion lending fund for industries, cities and states.


The legislation ensures that these taxpayer-backed loans cannot go to firms owned by President Trump, other White House officials or members of Congress. This would suggest that Trump-owned properties, including hotels that have been impacted, cannot seek taxpayer assistance.

Other provisions include $150 billion for state and local stimulus funds and $130 billion for hospitals.

It would significantly boost unemployment insurance benefits, expanding eligibility and offering workers an additional $600 a week for four months, on top of what state unemployment programs pay. Millions of Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past few weeks, flooding a system that isn’t designed to cope with a sudden wave of applicants.

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.

Scramble for medical equipment descends into chaos as U.S. states and hospitals compete for rare supplies

After Senate passage, the next step is a little less clear. The House is out of session, so action there could take longer, depending on whether lawmakers can agree to pass the bill by “unanimous consent,” which would require agreement from all members of the chamber.

But some liberals and conservatives have already hinted they could oppose it.

Tuesday began with all parties predicting a deal would be imminent, along with a vote by Tuesday evening. But as the hours dragged on, multiple disputes arose and legislative language required close review.

Finally, as midnight neared Tuesday, the pace of shuttle diplomacy picked up on the second floor of the Capitol, as Mnuchin, White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland and the newly named White House chief of staff, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), met alternately with McConnell and Schumer, who was in frequent contact with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“You know, I wouldn’t say there were any thorny, any particular thorny issues. This is a very complicated piece of legislation. It’s a very large investment in the U.S. economy,” Mnuchin told reporters after the deal was struck. “And people worked tirelessly around the clock going through the documents. So, again, couldn’t be more pleased.”

Mnuchin said Trump would “absolutely, absolutely, absolutely” sign the bill.

The package would extend extraordinary taxpayer assistance to potentially millions of companies that have been hammered by the fast-moving economic crisis. The bill is being rushed through Congress without public hearings or formal review, and it’s unclear how effective the measures would be in arresting the economy’s sudden fall. But lawmakers said they had little choice but to try.

“This is not a moment of celebration but one of necessity,” Schumer said.

After falling 10,000 points in 10 weeks, the Dow Jones industrial average began showing signs of life Tuesday in anticipation of a deal. It surged more than 2,100 points, or 11.4 percent. The government is dealing with a number of competing pressures, though, as Trump declared that he’d like much of the country to be up and running by April 12, even though the number of people testing positive for the novel virus in the United States continues to climb.

“In effect, this is a wartime level of investment into our nation,” McConnell said.

White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow called it the “single largest Main Street assistance program in the history of the United States.”

The delay in finalizing a deal came, in part, because aides launched a painstaking scrub of the bill’s text, to make sure that one of the most ambitious pieces of legislation ever attempted by Congress — thrown together in little over a week — actually said what lawmakers wanted it to say.

Senate Republicans were being extra meticulous because they felt an earlier and much smaller coronavirus relief bill, which Mnuchin negotiated in a rush with Pelosi this month, turned out to have provisions related to paid sick leave that GOP senators opposed — but which they reluctantly accepted. Now, they wanted to double- and triple-check Mnuchin’s work in brokering a deal with Schumer, given the enormous stakes.

Trump has already said he wants some of the money to go to the cruise ship industry, and he also wants assistance for hotels. When he was asked Monday evening who would perform oversight of the program, Trump responded, “I’ll be the oversight.”

But during closed-door negotiations on Capitol Hill, White House officials agreed to allow an independent inspector general and an oversight board to scrutinize the lending decisions, senators said.

The most recent precedent for this is the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program that was created during the 2008 financial crisis. To oversee TARP, Congress created an independent inspector general, a regulatory oversight board and a congressional oversight panel. Over the course of several years, investigations uncovered numerous cases of fraud at large and small companies as firms sought to obtain taxpayer money through various programs.

Lawmakers of both parties are under extreme pressure from their constituents and health-care providers in their districts and states to act to provide desperately needed money and supplies amid widespread shortages and waves of layoffs. As of Tuesday night, there were more than 55,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States, and the numbers were rising by the hour.

Final issues included a push by Democrats for a dramatic increase in food stamp benefits in exchange for accepting billions more in funding for the administration’s farm bailout that Republicans have included in the stimulus bill. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said in a news release that the legislation would increase the amount the Agriculture Department can spend on its bailout program from $30 billion to $50 billion.

Democratic aides said they were optimistic that a strong bipartisan Senate vote would make it possible to pass the bill by unanimous consent in the House — a process requiring only two members present in the House chamber. But that would require every lawmaker to agree — a tall order for a $2 trillion bill touching every part of the U.S. economy.

However, any lawmaker of either party could object, and in an early warning sign Tuesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) voiced concern about the legislation over Twitter, writing that despite “vague statements,” no one had seen text of the legislation that “seems to give a *HALF TRILLION DOLLARS* away to big corporations, w/ few worker protections.”

Among House Republicans, there is similar reluctance to commit to approving a still-unseen bill, according to GOP aides familiar with internal conversations. Besides potential policy objections inherent in a $2 trillion bill, members might also resist passing a bill of that magnitude without a formal vote, the aides said — thus requiring most lawmakers to return to Washington.

If unanimous consent is not possible, aides of both parties said the most likely scenario would be a day-long vote where members would be encouraged to spread out their trips to the floor and not congregate as the vote is taken.

“We need this to get working for the American people,” Mnuchin said. “And again, there are a lot of compromises. It’s a terrific bill. And it was a great accomplishment for everyone.”

At least two House members and one senator have tested positive for the coronavirus, while others remained quarantined, and multiple lawmakers have voiced trepidation about returning to the Capitol.

Congress has already passed two much smaller coronavirus relief bills: an $8.3 billion emergency supplemental for the health-care system and a $100-billion-plus bill to boost paid sick leave and unemployment insurance and provide free coronavirus testing.-Washington Post