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Senate Moves Towards Vote on Coronavirus Stimulus Package

By Joshua Jamerson, Andrew Duehren and Natalie Andrews 

WASHINGTON -- The Senate late Wednesday moved towards voting on an estimated $2 trillion stimulus package designed to shield the economy from the ravages of the new coronavirus pandemic, after the effort hit snags earlier in the day.

The Senate was expected to vote Wednesday night on the mammoth bill, though the procedure was delayed when rank-and-file members voiced objections while lawmakers were finalizing the bill's full text.

The legislation would provide direct payments to many Americans, drastically expand unemployment insurance, offer hundreds of billions in loans to both small and large businesses, refill drained state coffers and extend additional resources to health-care providers.

"A fight has arrived on our shores," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) on the Senate floor. "We did not seek it. We did not want it. But now, we are going to win it."

But as Senate leaders rushed to move the bill through the chamber swiftly on Wednesday, protests from Republican lawmakers over the unemployment provisions in the bill threatened to draw out the process further. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate, said he would slow down the bill, if the group of Republicans did not withdraw their threat, creating a high-stakes standoff in the final stages of the negotiations.

At the White House, President Trump said that lawmakers were "very close" to passing the deal, which he praised as a boon to American workers. "I will sign it immediately," he said. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at a White House briefing he still expected the bill to pass the Senate Wednesday night.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said Wednesday that she is optimistic about the legislation and said no decision had been made about when the House would try to take up the legislation, if it clears the Senate as expected.

The House is expected then to attempt quickly to pass the bill by unanimous consent, a procedure that enables the chamber to approve the legislation without lawmakers being present to vote. An objection from even a single member could slow the process. House lawmakers are currently on recess and scattered across the country.

The legislation will provide one-time checks of $1,200 to Americans with adjusted gross income up to $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for married couples. Individuals and couples are eligible for an additional $500 per child. The government rebates will be pared by $5 for each $100 of income over those thresholds, completely phasing out for individuals whose incomes exceed $99,000, $146,500 for head of households with one child, and $198,000 for joint filers who don't have children.

Eligible U.S. residents must have a work-eligible social security number to receive such a check and must not be claimed as a dependent by another taxpayer, according to Senate documents. Unlike an earlier proposal crafted by Senate Republicans, the payments won't be set at a lower level for some low-income Americans.

The checks will be available to those who have no income as well as people who rely on income benefit programs, such as supplemental security income from the Social Security Administration.

Those payments would be in addition to a broad expansion in unemployment benefits, which would be extended to nontraditional employees, including gig workers and freelancers. The agreement is set to increase current unemployment assistance by $600 a week for four months.

The legislation hit a snag on Wednesday when a group of Senate Republicans attempted to amend the legislation to remove the $600 extra weekly payment for those receiving unemployment insurance because it could result in people getting more money while out of work than they did in their jobs.

"This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.). He, along with a few others, attempted to amend the legislation.

The $600 across-the-board increase was a bipartisan agreement, reached several days ago and was done because every state has a different unemployment program and creating a program for each state would take too much time, aides from both parties said.

"Some workers, some, may end up coming out ahead...I'm not going to stand here and say that I feel badly about that," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.). "Let's give them that helping hand and not apologize for it for a minute."

The Senate is also poised to approve $350 billion in loans to small businesses in an effort to keep Americans on payrolls as economic activity across the country comes to a standstill. Under the new program, loan money that small businesses use to cover payroll expenses, rent, interest on mortgage obligations and utilities will be forgiven. The legislation would also provide billions in debt relief on existing loans.

A major challenge in the negotiations was $500 billion in corporate aid, much of which will go toward backstopping Federal Reserve loans. The Treasury secretary will have the authority to directly lend a slice of those funds, and Democrats had sought to place controls on the money. The agreement will create a new inspector general and oversight board to monitor the aid.

The corporate aid portion also includes $17 billion for assistance to companies deemed to be crucial to national security, which could include firms such as Boeing Co. and General Electric Co.

"You can imagine there's an awful lot of companies that can qualify for that," Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said about that national-security fund, adding it should not be thought of as specifically for Boeing. A draft of the bill text doesn't name any specific companies.

Boeing has been seeking at least $60 billion in public and private aid for itself, its suppliers and the broader aerospace industry.

The latest version of the legislation also would give grants of $25 billion for passenger air carriers, $4 billion for air-cargo carriers and $3 billion for contractors. The money is on top of loans and loan guarantees available through the Treasury. The airlines had sought such direct grants, but initially had been rebuffed by Republicans.

The legislation will also create a new grant program to send $100 billion to health-care providers, already straining to respond to the rising number of infections across the country. An additional $16 billion will go toward building a stockpile of medical equipment, including personal protective gear that has become scarce.

Expanded telehealth, higher Medicare reimbursement for doctors and hospitals, and a delay in certain Medicaid cuts to hospitals are part of the coronavirus package focused on health-care needs during the crisis.

The package would ensure states can get a 6.2% increase in matching federal funds for Medicaid and delay scheduled reductions to hospitals that care for a large share of uninsured or low-income patients. Payments hospitals get for treating patients infected with the virus would also be increased by 20%.

Democrats said that the bill includes $150 billion to go directly to state and local governments saddled with costs related to the virus.

In a heated call with House lawmakers from his home state, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the state would get only $4 billion in direct aid as part of a package giving $150 billion to states, according to a person familiar with the call. He argued that state funding should be higher and that a separate pool of money in addition to direct state aid should be available for cities, given that deaths in New York City alone account for about a quarter of the country's total. Under the bill, any money sought by an individual city would reduce the amount available to the rest of the state.

Mr. Cuomo said in his daily briefing: "$3.8 billion sounds like a lot of money...but we're looking at a revenue shortfall of $9, $10, $15 billion" in the state's budget, on top of emergency response costs of $1 billion so far.

Democrats also secured a provision in the agreement that bans businesses controlled by Mr. Trump, the vice president, members of Congress and heads of executive departments from receiving loans or other funds from the stimulus bill. Children and spouses of those people are also banned, according to a senior Democratic aide.

The Senate bill would appropriate $25 million to the Kennedy Center for deep cleaning, increased teleworking capabilities, and operating and administrative expenses to ensure the Washington performing arts venue can resume normal operations immediately upon reopening, according to a document reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. At a White House briefing, President Trump said he approved of the Democratic request, saying the center has "suffered greatly."

Once the bill passes the Senate, as expected, it will then go to the House, where Mrs. Pelosi has said that she wants to pass without having to recall members back to Washington from their districts for a floor vote.

Richard Rubin, Siobhan Hughes and Stephanie Armour contributed to this article.

Write to Joshua Jamerson at joshua.jamerson@wsj.com, Andrew Duehren at andrew.duehren@wsj.com and Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 25, 2020 21:58 ET (01:58 GMT)

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