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Senate Clears Coronavirus Aid Package, with More to Come

From Roll Call, Posted March 18, 2020

By Jennifer Shutt The Senate cleared a multibillion-dollar aid package Wednesday afternoon to help those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic by providing paid sick leave, free diagnostic testing and expanded food aid.

The measure is the second of several packages Congress plans to pass to help bolster the health care sector and reduce the impact of a virus that has brought wide swaths of the economy to a halt. It passed in a 90-8 vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday morning that he would vote for the legislation, despite his frustration with some of its elements.

“It is a well-intentioned, bipartisan product assembled by House Democrats and President [Donald] Trump's team that tries to stand up and expand some new relief measures for American workers,” 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. However, the House bill has real shortcomings. It does not even begin to cover all of the Americans who will need help in the days ahead.”

McConnell reiterated he plans to keep the Senate in session, possibly during weekends, to draft and pass a third package to combat the health care and economic impacts of the pandemic.

"I will not adjourn the Senate until we have passed a far bolder package that must include significant relief for small businesses all across our country," he said, noting the third package would include a "historic injection of liquidity and access to credit."

Work on that package has been ongoing for days with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin proposing a $1 trillion package to the Senate GOP on Tuesday. Mnuchin, who has repeatedly emerged as a critical negotiator for the administration, has also continued talking with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

That package could provide direct cash payments to Americans as well as grants and loans to struggling or shuttered businesses. The Office of Management and Budget has also sent Congress a $45.8 billion supplemental spending request to increase funding for dozens of federal agencies.

The Senate’s vote Wednesday on the economic stimulus bill will cap a whirlwind legislative process marked by a middle-of-the-night House vote just minutes after text was released, a 90-page technical correction three days later and objections from at least five senators that stalled quick consideration in that chamber.

Trump is expected to sign the bill.'Time of national emergency'

The speed and urgency with which congressional leaders and the Trump administration are agreeing to and passing legislation are aimed at preventing the economy from sliding into a recession.

Lawmakers also hope to reassure Americans that Republicans and Democrats can work together in a crisis, albeit with a few hiccups here and there. The package cleared Wednesday will provide free COVID-19 testing for those without health insurance, school meals for children whose schools have closed, extended unemployment insurance and liability protections for manufacturers of face masks and other protective gear.

The technical correction includes tax credits intended to defray the costs of the new paid leave requirements. Those credits would be expanded and apply to health insurance contributions to workers taking time off for illness or to care for children home from school. In addition, the tax credits would offset not just the 6.2 percent Social Security portion of payroll taxes on affected wages, but also the separate 1.45 percent Medicare tax.

The Congressional Budget Office didn't release a report detailing the total cost of the bill by the time the Senate voted. That didn’t stop Sen. Rand Paul from offering an amendment to offset the expected cost of the legislation by ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan by the end of the year, transferring money from other accounts to pandemic response and making permanent a law that requires Social Security numbers to receive the child tax credit, according to his office.[McConnell: Don’t ‘let perfection be the enemy’ of House’s coronavirus bill]

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., rebuked Republican leadership for allowing a vote on the amendment. “In a time of national emergency, this Republican amendment is ridiculous, a colossal waste of time,” Schumer said. “We probably could have voted on this bill a day or two ago, if not for the need to schedule this amendment.”The Senate rejected the Paul amendment following a 3-95 vote.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum have largely set aside concerns about paying for the stimulus legislation, citing widespread economic and health impacts from the virus.

“You know interest rates are incredibly low, so there's very little cost of borrowing this money. In different times, we'll fix the deficit,” Mnuchin said Tuesday. “This is not the time to worry about it. This is the time that hard-working Americans are impacted by government decisions. That's when the government has to step up to put money into the economy.”

Before voting on the package, senators voted to reject an amendment from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and a counter-amendment from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. The Johnson amendment would strike provisions from the House bill mandating paid leave. It would replace those requirements with a new federally backed unemployment insurance fund for people impacted by the pandemic.

Workers would be eligible for up to 14 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits, payable $1,000 per week or two-thirds of average weekly earnings — whichever is lower. It would be retroactive to the beginning of March. According to the Wisconsin Republican's office, employers who offer paid leave could be reimbursed from the federal government, using the same formula.

In addition, people taking advantage of the unemployment insurance would not be counted as part of the unemployment rate. Senators voted 50-48 to reject the Johnson amendment. Murray’s amendment would require that all employees impacted by COVID-19 receive seven days of accrued paid sick leave, two weeks of paid emergency days and 12 weeks of paid emergency leave. It would ensure that the Treasury Department reimburse small businesses for that paid leave throughout the remainder of 2020 and 2021.

“If we let this opportunity slip by, we are sending a message to scared people across the country that we are still not willing to acknowledge the scope of the tragedy we are seeing unfold,” Murray said. “We cannot send that message. People need help, they need hope, they need to see that we are willing to do the right thing and pass big solutions.”Senators rejected the Murray amendment in a 47-51 party-line vote.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.


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