Acting swiftly in an extraordinary time, the House rushed President Donald Trump a $2.2 trillion rescue package Friday, tossing a life preserver to a U.S. economy and health care system left flailing by the coronavirus pandemic.
The House approved the sweeping measure by voice vote, as strong majorities of both parties lined up behind the most colossal economic relief bill in the nation’s history. It will ship payments of up to $1,200 to millions of Americans, bolster unemployment benefits, offer loans, grants and tax breaks to businesses large and small and flush billions more to states, local governments and the nation’s nearly overwhelmed health care system.
Trump said he would sign the measure immediately, even as the virus’ death toll in the U.S. surpassed 1,300 and the number of confirmed infections spiraled above 93,000. A record 3.3 million people filed for jobless benefits last week as growing numbers of companies lock their doors.
Illustrating the virus’ ongoing spread, Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., became the fourth member of Congress to announce he’d been diagnosed with COVID-19.
There were hand sanitizers at the end of each aisle in the House chamber as the day’s debate sketched the latest picture of what legislating looks like during a pandemic. Most lawmakers sat well apart from one another, and microphones and lecterns were swabbed with sanitary wipes between speeches.
“The American people deserve a government-wide, visionary, evidence-based response to address these threats to their lives and their livelihood. And they need it now,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“We are going to help Americans through this. We are going to do this together,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Passage came after Democratic and Republican leaders banded together and outmaneuvered a maverick GOP lawmaker. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a libertarian who opposed the bill and often bucks the GOP leadership, tried to force a roll call vote.
“Mr. Speaker, I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent in an empty chamber, and I request a recorded vote,” Massie said.
He also complained on Twitter that both parties’ leaders had plotted together to “insulate members of Congress from ACCOUNTABILITY” on the “Biggest spending bill in the history of mankind.”
A roll call would have forced many lawmakers scattered around the country to take risky flights back to the Capitol, and it would have delayed approval of a measure that was certain to pass anyway. After Massie made his request, the congressman presiding over the debate — Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md. — ruled that enough lawmakers were present to allow a voice vote, and the bill passed as most members shouted, “Aye!”
Massie’s moved had infuriated Trump and many lawmakers.
Trump tweeted that Massie is “a third rate Grandstander” and said he should be drummed out of the GOP. “He is a disaster for America, and for the Great State of Kentucky!” Trump wrote.
The debate was mostly conciliatory, with members of both parties praising the measure as a rescue for a ravaged nation.
“While no one will agree with every part of this rescue bill, we face a challenge rarely seen in America’s history. We must act now, or the toll on lives and livelihoods will be far greater,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas.
“We have no time to dither,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. “We have no time to engage in ideological or petty partisan fights. Our country needs us as one.”
Still, there were outbursts.
Freshman Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., donned pink latex gloves and yelled well beyond her allotted one minute, saying she was speaking “not for personal attention but (to encourage you) to take this disease seriously.” Much of what she said could not be heard above Republican shouts.
“Heading to Washington to vote on pandemic legislation. Because of one Member of Congress refusing to allow emergency action entire Congress must be called back to vote in House,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., wrote on Twitter. “Risk of infection and risk of legislation being delayed. Disgraceful. Irresponsible.”
The House’s certain approval was telegraphed Wednesday might, when the Senate passed the legislation 96-0.
The latest bill is unlikely to be the end of the federal response. Pelosi said issues like more generous food stamp payments, aid to state and local governments and family leave may be revisited in subsequent legislation.
Key elements of the legislation are untested, such as grants to small businesses to keep workers on payroll and complex lending programs to larger businesses.
Policymakers worry that bureaucracies like the Small Business Administration may become overwhelmed, and conservatives fear that a new, generous unemployment benefit will dissuade jobless people from returning to the workforce. A new $500 billion subsidized lending program for larger businesses is unproven as well.
The bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion-plus annual federal budget. The $2.2 trillion estimate is the White House’s best guess of the spending it contains.
The legislation will provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child.
Unemployment insurance will be far more generous, with $600 per week tacked onto regular state jobless payments through the end of July. States and local governments will receive $150 billion in supplemental funding to help them provide basic and emergency services during the crisis.
The legislation also establishes a $454 billion program for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries in hopes of leveraging up to $4.5 trillion in lending to distressed businesses, states, and municipalities. All will be up to the Treasury Department’s discretion, though businesses controlled by Trump or immediate family members and by members of Congress will be ineligible.
There is also $150 billion devoted to the health care system, including $100 billion for grants to hospitals and other health care providers buckling under the strain of COVID-19 caseloads.
Republicans successfully pressed for an employee retention tax credit that’s estimated to provide $50 billion to companies that retain employees on payroll and cover 50% of workers’ paycheck up to $10,000. Companies will also be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax. A huge tax break for interest costs and operating losses limited by the 2017 tax overhaul was restored at a $200 billion cost in a boon for the real estate sector.
An additional $45 billion will fund additional relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for local response efforts and community services.
Most people who contract the new coronavirus have mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
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