U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. | Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead via Flickr 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, with both of Michigan’s U.S. senators, Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) voting yes.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who tested positive for COVID-19, was among the four Republican senators who missed the vote. Utah U.S. Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, both Republicans, were under self-quarantine and U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) was feeling ill.
The bill could become law as soon as this week. U.S. 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.
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.
President Donald Trump gave his endorsement in an early morning tweet: “96-0 in the United States Senate. Congratulations AMERICA!”
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.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that House Democrats were reviewing the bill. The legislation “does not go as far” as the relief package laid out by House Democrats, she said, but “the bill has moved a great deal closer to America’s workers” than Senate Republicans’ initial plan.
Hoyer said Wednesday that he expected the bill to pass by a voice vote, which would allow most lawmakers to stay in their districts. Some members have tested positive for COVID-19 and several others are under quarantine while awaiting test results. There also are limited flight options and stay-at-home orders in some states, like Michigan.
However, Pelosi said Wednesday evening that unanimous consent was a nonstarter and members needed at least 24 hour to review the bill. Many members have raised issues, like all seven Michigan House Democrats wanting a water shutoff ban.
U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) is chronicling her drive back to D.C. in a series of tweets.
And have not run out of gas!
— Haley Stevens (@HaleyLive) March 26, 2020
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 U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued that the unemployment benefits would disincentivize people from working. Graham called the provision “[Democratic presidential candidate] Bernie Sanders on steroids,” Business Insider reported.
The bill includes a Peters provision for federally funded unemployment benefits to people unable to work because of COVID-19. It expands who is eligible for unemployment to include workers who have exhausted their state unemployment benefits or other workers who would not usually qualify, such as self-employed workers like small business owners, freelance workers, independent contractors and seasonal workers as well as individuals who have recently started or were about to start a new job. Workers could receive benefits for up to 39 weeks.
“Michiganders who aren’t receiving a paycheck or have lost their jobs because of the Coronavirus pandemic shouldn’t have to worry about whether they can pay their bills or put food on the table — and that’s why I fought to secure inclusion of my legislation to expand critical unemployment assistance to everyone from small business owners to workers in the gig economy and independent contractors,” Peters said in a floor speech.
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 almost $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.”
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