Washington is mobilizing to rescue the country from potentially disastrous economic consequences from the global coronavirus outbreak, with the Senate on Wednesday passing a multi-billion dollar emergency package and quickly getting to work on a larger stimulus agreement.
With Senate leaders vowing to work at “warp speed” to blunt the financial fallout from the pandemic, the Treasury Department unveiled to lawmakers a plan for $250 billion in direct payments to Americans starting April 6.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans were inching closer on Wednesday to unveiling their proposal for a third, even larger stimulus package to address the epidemic, which is likely to include some of Treasury’s ideas.
The Senate’s approval Wednesday of the House-passed coronavirus bill, known as “phase two,” comes as Republican senators are expected to begin negotiations with Democrats on a trillion-dollar “phase three” stimulus package as early as Wednesday night.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell backed the House bill, which grants paid sick leave to hourly employees and expands unemployment insurance.
“It is a well-intentioned bipartisan product assembled by House Democrats and President Trump’s team that tries to stand up and expand some new relief measures for American workers,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said of the House bill, which House lawmakers passed early Saturday and later approved technical corrections on Monday.
Despite “real shortcomings” in the legislation, McConnell said, “in this case, I do not believe we should let perfection be the enemy of something that will help even a subset of workers.”
Earlier Wednesday, the White House sent a proposal to the Senate with a list of potential policy options discussed at a meeting the previous day, a senior administration official said.
According to the Treasury Department’s proposal, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, the so-called “phase three” proposal would include $50 billion to aid the hard-hit airline industry, $150 billion for other distressed sectors of the economy, two rounds of direct payments of $250 billion each on April 6 and May 18, and the creation of a small business interruption loan program.
The document notably does not mention a payroll tax cut, which President Donald Trump has suggested he wanted to be included in the package. But the idea lost steam in recent days as lawmakers from both parties rejected the idea, citing the need to grant immediate, large-scale relief.
“There are a lot of steps along the way here, but I think everybody has the motivation to get to a solution as quickly as possible,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said. “There are lots of wheels in motion — hopefully driving in the right direction.”
As the coronavirus spreads across the country and the stock market continues to plunge, there is widespread recognition that the Senate needs to act swiftly and assist individuals as well as small businesses as part of the massive aid package expected to be unveiled in the coming days.
McConnell has been adamant that the Senate will not leave Washington until it passes the “phase three” package. McConnell created three so-called “task forces” to come up with specific proposals to assist small businesses as they deal with the plummeting demand that comes with the lockdown orders in several cities across the country.
At Senate Republicans’ lunch meeting on Wednesday, members of each task force presented the proposals they are working on, according to an attendee. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) discussed direct payments to Americans, which could potentially include an income cap. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) talked about his small business proposal and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) discussed the deferment of student loans — potentially for up to three months, the attendee said.
In a sign of the personal precautions members are taking against the coronavirus, McConnell urged his colleagues to avoid congregating on the Senate floor and to leave the chamber as soon as each of them voted on Wednesday.
While no lawmaker reportedly has contracted the virus, several senators have self-quarantined after possible exposure. At least one Senate staffer has tested positive for the coronavirus.
And senators are continuing to urge Trump to take drastic actions usually only taken during wartime. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the president to invoke the Defense Production Act, which could significantly increase the production of critical equipment, including hospital beds and other medical supplies. Trump later announced he was doing just that.
“If you ignore the public health crisis with the equipment and infrastructure and personnel that is needed in many more numbers than we’ve ever seen, the economy won’t get better,” said Schumer, who spoke by phone with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about the “phase three” package, according to a spokesman.
During a meeting with Republican senators on Tuesday, Mnuchin warned that the unemployment rate could spike to double digits if Congress doesn’t take action, according to a source familiar with the remarks.
House Democrats are also drafting a third stimulus bill to act as a counter-offer to the “phase three” package senators are currently drafting.
Democratic lawmakers and aides say the House plan could include expanded Medicaid coverage, additional unemployment insurance payments, relief for homeowners and renters, support for small businesses, an airline rescue package and additional food security measures.
Democrats familiar with the proposal said the plan won’t be completed until next week, and it remains unclear if Speaker Nancy Pelosi will bring the House back to Washington to vote.
In the meantime, some Senate Democrats are already laying out their demands for the stimulus package. They’re warning that Congress’ third phase of aid must include a far more broad paid sick leave policy, or it will not clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass.
“In the next package, all of us are insisting that this provision on paid sick leave and family leave be part of it,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash) said on a conference call with reporters.
“It’s a non-starter if it’s not included in the next package,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), another long-time proponent of paid sick leave. “That next tranche of investment in the economy is going to require 60 votes. If it’s not included, I don’t believe Democratic support will be for the measure.”
Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle and Nancy Cook contributed to this report.
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