Senate approves $2T bipartisan stimulus package to respond to coronavirus

rarrarorro/iStock
rarrarorro/iStock

(WASHINGTON) — With the White House and Senate finally reaching an agreement early Wednesday morning on a $2 trillion package to respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic, now comes the tough part: securing the votes.

After haggling all day, a final bill was introduced in the Senate and approved.

Senate Republicans downplayed concessions given to Democrats throughout the marathon negotiations, arguing Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “delayed life-saving aid to medical professionals and significant relief for families and small businesses in order to claim credit for wins that are either bipartisan or Republican ideas.”

“Reading Chuck Schumer’s list, we half expected that the next thing I read would be the minority leader taking credit for inventing fire,” a senior Senate GOP aide said. “The reality is that almost every significant “win” he’s taking credit for, is actually a Senate Republican idea.”

The aide claimed Senate Republicans “never objected” that oversight of the Economic Stabilization Fund be structured in the mold of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) oversight, or that the bill would include billions of dollars to shore up hospitals.

“What Schumer and Senate Democrats actually wanted was to create a completely new structure that would have given subpoena power to a new panel that would have had oversight of the entire Trump administration pandemic response,” the aide argued. “From the beginning, when Leader McConnell laid out four pillars of phase three, unprecedented aid to the nation’s hospitals was a primary element. There was always going to be tens and tens of billions for our hospitals in the CARES Act. Sen. Schumer’s attempt to take credit for an increase in hospital aid is nonsensical because there was no opposition.”

Wednesday afternoon, a quartet of Senate Republicans objected to a provision in the massive unemployment insurance expansion in the package that they say could mean that some Americans could be paid more to be out of work than they were earning before they were laid off or furloughed because of the pandemic.

In the unprecedented expansion of jobless benefits in the relief bill, each worker would receive a $600 weekly check for four months — on top of the customary benefits doled out by states.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who pushed for the expansion of these benefits, said he and three other GOP senators — Rick Scott of Florida, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse — are demanding an amendment to the bill that would cap benefits for the jobless at 100% of a worker’s pay before he or she was out of a job.

“This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working,” Graham said, contending the bill would pay the unemployed roughly $24 per hour, on average.

The provision, which aides said was not a drafting error, was negotiated by the Trump Administration, Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and senior Democrats, including Schumer and Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee.

Unemployment insurance, which is administered at the state level through individual programs, was not conducive to imposing a brand new federal bureaucracy to dole out emergency benefits, Republican and Democratic aides who were close to the talks explained. Senate negotiators chose to come up with a national average wage in order to arrive at the $600 weekly figure, and the bill would have the states take on that financial burden on the front end only to be repaid by the federal government.

Ultimately, the problem was just a hiccup, with the four introducing an amendment that would cap unemployment benefits, but it failed in a vote late Wednesday.

The measure now moves to the House for a potential vote later this week.

All politics are local, and beyond exerting public pressure to lobby the Senate to improve the bill, this is a package that members of the House had little direct sway in crafting. That has generated apprehension that a single member — Republican or Democrat — could scuttle efforts to pass the Senate agreement without calling all of the House’s membership back to Washington to cast a roll call vote.

House Republican leaders held two conference calls with their members on Wednesday to build cohesive support for the Senate agreement. Minority Whip Steve Scalise is also touting the Senate deal as “the largest economic relief package in American history.”

Scalise’s whip team convened a conference call Tuesday where a source expressed optimism that all lawmakers won’t need to return for a vote — and that they won’t have to change the rules to achieve that.

Whenever a vote is called in the House, the member presiding over the House asks all in favor to say “Aye!” — and all opposed — “No!” This generally provoke each side to yell out their votes and the chair rules on whichever side he or she believes prevailed. Only then does a member — usually from the losing end — stand to request a recorded vote.

The way GOP leaders see it, their members could still shout “NO!!!!!” and be satisfied that they expressed their opposition without forcing a roll call vote. But it remains an open question whether all members would be content without a recorded vote.

“It only takes one member to object to trying to pass this via [unanimous consent], which is a very real possibility that we recognize,” a whip team source acknowledged. “However, passing this by voice vote remains a possibility. We have discussed this with various factions of our conference, and believe this is a possible outcome. Strong Republican support for the bill is evident at this point.”

During an appearance on PBS, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she does not believe the House will be able to pass the stimulus bill by unanimous consent.

“No I don’t think we can get unanimous consent,” Pelosi said. “I think there are a number of people who are working their way here on the Republican side for sure — maybe the Democrat side — to object to unanimous consent.”

She also acknowledged the House could approve the measure by a voice vote.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is already warning that the agreement is “terrible” for New York — even though Schumer, the senior senator from the Big Apple, had an outsized role negotiating the deal.

House Democratic leaders are also conferring with each other as they await a Senate vote, and working to hold off the left flank of the party from upsetting the bipartisan vibe.

While Pelosi refused to fully endorse the agreement as she awaited the legislative text, her statement Wednesday morning outlined several victories Democrats are emphasizing in order to unite the caucus — while admitting the agreement does not match the Democratic priorities spelled out in their own proposal.

“This bipartisan legislation takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people,” Pelosi, D-Calif., stated. “While the compromise does not go as far as our Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act, thanks to the unity and insistence of Senate and House Democrats, the bill has moved a great deal closer to America’s workers.”

After a brief pro forma session Wednesday morning, the House adjourned until 11 a.m. Thursday. In a Dear Colleague letter, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer reaffirmed his pledge to give lawmakers 24-hours notice before a vote to afford members the opportunity to return to the Capitol.

“Before we can determine when and how the House will consider this legislation, we must have the final legislative text and clear direction on when the Senate will vote,” Hoyer, D-Md., wrote. “I remain committed to giving House Members 24 hours’ notice before the House acts.”

More than a dozen representatives remain in self-quarantine as two other members of the House recover from the coronavirus.

As with the two previous phases of Congress’ response, leaders are attempting to assuage any consternation among their members by promising future waves of relief in the coming weeks and months.

Rep. David Cicilline, the chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, announced he’s supporting the Senate’s deal, but he’s already looking for more action from Congress.

“I’ve already directed my staff to begin identifying additional priorities for Rhode Island. In the weeks ahead, I will continue working with Gov. Raimondo and my colleagues in the Congressional Delegation to ensure we leave no stone unturned until this crisis has ended,” Cicilline, D-R. I., noted in a statement Wednesday.

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