Deal reached on massive coronavirus bill, but hurdles remain
Updated 6:20 p.m. with Trump comments, further updates as warranted.
Washington – After days of marathon negotiations, Senate leaders early Wednesday reached an agreement on a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus package that would pour billions of dollars into states like Connecticut, give direct cash payments to most Americans and boost unemployment benefits to those who lose their jobs or are furloughed.
Hospitals would receive $100 billion and another $150 billion would be spent on a medical “Marshall Plan” that would spend the money on personal and protective equipment for health care workers, testing supplies, increased workforce and training, new construction to house patients, an increase of the Strategic National Stockpile, medical research into COVID-19 and Medicare payment increases to all hospitals and providers.
To reach the massive deal — the largest bill ever considered by Congress — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to Democratic demands that unemployment benefits and money to states and hospitals be increased.
The GOP also agreed that a $500 billion fund to provide loans to industries that have been slammed by the coronavirus crisis, like the nation’s airlines, would be monitored by an inspector general and a new congressional panel.
“I think we’ve done pretty well,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., “I think there is enough transparency to drill down and stop the abuse of funds.”
But some governors said the money in the package that would go to states is not enough and several Republican senators say the packages increased unemployment benefits are too generous.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said his state’s $3.8 billion share, of which $1.3 billion would go to New York City, is grossly inadequate. “This is a drop in the bucket to what we need,” Cuomo said.
“This is a wartime level of investment into our nation.”
–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Cuomo said he needs $9 to $15 billion to respond to the crisis.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who heads the National Governors Association, also said the package does not provide enough assistance to the states. The nation’s governors, he said, will meet to talk about the stimulus.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, however, said he is looking forward to the help in the massive stimulus package.
“We’re hoping the cavalry is coming up from Washington D.C.,” he said
Although Lamont said it’s natural to “get a little nervous” about a $2 trillion that was crafted in middle of the night, he said the money for the state, which will be at minimum $1.25 billion for each state, “gives us a little bit of flexibility to take care of the people we have to take care of.”
“I think they got it pretty right,” he said.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he is “duty bound to read” the bill before he decides whether to vote for it. But he also said he’s leaning toward voting “yes.”
“I think there are some important resources to help Connecticut get through the virus,” including the money to states and hospitals, Murphy said.
A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Murphy said he worked on the small business section of the bill, and the legislation’s grants and federally guaranteed loans available at community banks to small businesses. The loans would be forgiven if the employer continued to pay workers for the duration of the crisis.
“I think these loans and grants can keep Connecticut businesses open,” Murphy said.
The bill, which must still be approved by both chambers of Congress, would send $1,200 checks to many Americans, and $500 to each of their children. Those who earn $75,000 or less a year would get the full amount of money. But payments would be smaller for those earning more than that and cut off completely for those whose annual incomes are $99,000 or more.
Democrats won a change in this program which otherwise would have excluded those who earn too little to pay federal income tax last year — the nation’s poorest residents –from receiving any money.
The bill would also give the Small Business Administration $10 billion to provide grants up to $10,000 to small businesses struggling to remain open and $17 billion for the SBA to cover six months of payments for small businesses with existing SBA loans.
The legislation also provides $30 billion in emergency education funding, $25 billion in emergency transit funding, and give Amtrak more than $1 billion to cope with a massive loss of riders.
“This is a wartime level of investment into our nation,” McConnell said.
President Donald Trump and congressional leaders said it’s likely Congress will approve additional stimulus bills. The $2 trillion package under consideration is the third coronavirus bill since the pandemic hit the United States in February.
“If we have to go back, we have to go back,” Trump said.
The bill is being rushed through Congress without public hearings and no one can guarantee it will halt the U.S. economy’s sudden fall.
“This is not a moment of celebration but one of necessity,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. said.
The new unemployment provisions, which for the first time will allow the self-employed and gig economy workers to apply for benefits, is likely to have the most direct effect on individuals.
The bill would offer jobless Americans $600 a week — considered 100 percent of wages for the average American without a paycheck — and pay 13 weeks of unemployment benefits without a waiting period.
That new federal benefit would be in addition to any benefits currently offered by a worker’s state, which administers its own unemployment insurance programs.
Connecticut calculates benefits based on a worker’s past salary and benefits are capped at $649 a week. Workers are eligible for up to 39 weeks — around 10 months — of total federal and state benefits.
The package was expected to be approved by the Senate on Wednesday and then go to the House.
But objections to the unemployment provisions on the bill by three Republican senators — – Tim Scott and and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ben Sasse of Nebraska — could prevent the Senate from fast tracking the bill. The senators say the benefits are too generous, in excess of many Americans’ regular pay, and would prompt employers to lay off workers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., indicated she is willing to accept the Senate deal, but the governors’ objections to it may prod her to reopen the agreement, slowing down final passage.
Cuomo, for instance, said he favored a rival bill Pelosi had drafted that would provide $17 billion, not $3.8 billion for New York.
Pelosi wants the House to pass the coronavirus package by unanimous consent –without having to recall members back to Washington D.C. from their districts for a floor vote.
Many lawmakers are wary about traveling and being exposed to coronavirus, and several are in self-quarantine and won’t be able to travel.
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