The White House and Senate leaders struck a major deal early Wednesday morning over a $2-trillion package to provide a jolt to an economy struggling amid the coronovirus pandemic, capping days of marathon negotiations that produced one of the most expensive and far-reaching measures Congress has ever considered.
The legislation, if it passes Congress, would be the largest emergency aid package in US history and the most significant legislative action taken to address the rapidly intensifying coronavirus crisis, which is overwhelming hospitals and grinding much of the economy to a halt.
The full details have yet to be released. But over the last 24 hours, the elements of the proposal have come into sharper focus, with $250 billion set aside for direct payments to individuals and families, $350 billion in small business loans, $250 billion in unemployment insurance benefits and $500 billion in loans for distressed companies.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell formally announced the agreement on the Senate floor in the early hours of Wednesday morning, describing it as “a wartime level of investment for our nation,” and said the Senate would move to pass it later in the day on Wednesday.
An exact time for the Senate vote has not yet been scheduled and it’s not yet clear when the House will vote to approve the measure.
The plan will deliver a massive infusion of financial aid into a struggling economy hard hit by job loss, with provisions to help impacted American workers and families as well as small businesses and major industries including airlines.
Under the plan as it was being negotiated, individuals who earn $75,000 in adjusted gross income or less would get direct payments of $1,200 each, with married couples earning up to $150,000 receiving $2,400, and an additional $500 per child. The payment would scale down by income, phasing out entirely at $99,000 for singles and $198,000 for couples without children.
It also has a provision that block President Trump and his family, as well as other top government officials and members of Congress, from getting loans or investments from Treasury programs in the stimulus, according to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office.
Stimulus hits last-minute snag
Republicans Senator Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, Rick Scott of Florida and Ben Sasse of Nebraska are now pushing for a vote on an amendment to the stimulus package in a move that creates some uncertainty over when a final vote will take place, though it could happen as soon as Wednesday.
The senators are taking issue with provisions that they say would incentivize unemployment and could trigger work shortages and supply disruptions by providing more to unemployed workers than they would make working.
“This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working,” Graham said in a press conference. “You’re literally incentivizing taking people out of the workforce at a time when we need critical infrastructure supplied with workers. If this is not a drafting error than it’s the worst idea I’ve seen in a long time.”
The senators did not specify, however, how far they would go to hold up a final vote, which may indicate that they are hoping for an amendment vote later Wednesday, which would fail, and still allow for final passage afterward in the Senate.
“I am very hopeful that we will get this done very quickly. I think the American people need the resources in this bill,” Tim Scott said. “This bill needs to be done without any question. I think we can get it done here today and I believe that we’ll have an amendment in just a couple of hours.”
While the final bill text hasn’t been released, some of the areas have been debated behind closed doors for days. There was intense partisan debate oveer the $500 billion proposal to provide loans for distressed companies, with $50 billion in loans for passenger air carriers. Democrats contended there was not enough oversight on how the money would be doled out. but the Trump administration agreed to an oversight board and the creation of an inspector general position to review how the money is spent.
Negotiators also discussed providing four months of unemployment benefits, extending to self-employed workers. Also, the bill would ensure the SBA could serve as a guarantor for loans of up to $10 billion for small businesses to ensure they can maintain their payrolls and pay off their debts.
In addition, the bill would provide a major amount of funding for hard hit hospitals, $130 billion, as well as $150 billion for state and local governments that are cash strapped due to their response to combat coronavirus.
After two consecutive days of high-profile setbacks, with Senate Democrats blocking procedural votes on Sunday and Monday over opposition to a bill initially crafted by Senate Republicans, a deal appeared to be imminent by Tuesday morning, but was ultimately not announced until the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Democrats had argued they wanted to see more safeguards for American workers in the deal and oversight for how funding was doled out. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both signaled on Tuesday that they had won concessions in the emerging deal to that end.
Pelosi said in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Tuesday that “many of the provisions in there have been greatly improved because of negotiation.”
“Does it have everything we need? No. Are some things in there that I would have rather not had? No, of course. But this is the art of compromise,” Schumer told CNN’s John Berman Wednesday morning, adding, “America needed huge help quickly. And I think we’ve risen to that occasion.”
Schumer also suggested that the trillion-dollar stimulus plan may not be enough to offset the economic damage given the uncertainty of the pandemic, and that negotiators might have to “come back in a bipartisan way and do more if we need.”
The question now is how quickly the deal can be approved by both chambers, a challenge made more daunting by the fact that Congress is now operating in a scenario where several of its members have tested positive for coronavirus while many more have self-quarantined after contact with infected individuals.
A Democratic leadership aide told CNN that the House still has emergency convening authority and could quickly come back into session Wednesday. But the aide said it’s “more likely” the House vote would wait until Thursday since it’s still unclear when the Senate will act on the legislation, which has yet to be released.
Pelosi suggested on Tuesday that she is hoping to avoid bringing the full House back to Washington to vote on the package, seeking to pass it through unanimous consent instead. But any individual member can block such a move, creating uncertainty over whether that will be feasible.
Another option may be for the House to approve the package by voice vote as opposed to holding a recorded roll call vote.
The Democratic leadership aide said Wednesday morning that the House still plans to vote, likely by voice vote, without bringing all its members back to Washington.