WASHINGTON - U.S. lawmakers are racing to enact a massive rescue package to prop up an American economy increasingly paralyzed by efforts to contain the novel coronavirus.
Stock markets plunged last week — wiping out nearly all gains recorded during Donald Trump’s presidency — as activity in public places across the country ground to a halt.
With factories, businesses, restaurants and schools shutting down and entire industries in shambles, workers are facing layoffs, cutbacks in hours or having to make the difficult choice of working while ill if they lack paid sick leave.
Despite positive test results for lawmakers in both chambers that have forced self-quarantining measures, Democratic and Republican leaders say lawmakers must stay in Washington to finish work on an economic stimulus package.
“The coronavirus is slowing our economy to a near standstill,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said on the Senate floor last week. “We're almost certainly anticipating a recession.”
Lawmakers and the White House have devised a series of phases to rescue the U.S. economy. Here is a summary of what each phase has been designed to do.
Lawmakers initially focused on funding U.S. public health efforts to combat the coronavirus, passing an $8.3 billion package earlier this month.
Trump asked Congress for little more than $2 billion in funding, with a plan to fund $535 million of that request by rerouting unused funds allocated to fight Ebola. Democrats pushed back on that plan and ultimately negotiated a bill with the White House that included $3 billion for coronavirus vaccine development and $1 billion for U.S. international aid efforts to combat the virus.
Trump signed that bill on March 6.
The Democrat-majority House of Representatives took the lead on negotiating the first bill with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to address the devastating economic impact of the crisis.
The Senate passed "phase two” of the bill last week by a 90-8 vote. The bill offers COVID-19 testing without cost, an extension of unemployment benefits to address the needs of workers who may be laid off due to the crisis, as well as paid sick leave for workers at some U.S. companies.
Lower-income workers in the United States make up one-quarter of the American workforce that has no access to paid sick leave.
The House-passed bill has several loopholes, which means the sick leave extension would not apply to companies with fewer than 50 employees or more than 500 workers. The bill also caps the amount of sick leave pay workers can collect.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky expressed reservations about the bill but encouraged Republicans to pass it.
“I do not believe we should let perfection be the enemy of something that will help even a subset of workers,” McConnell said on the Senate floor last week. “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.”
The Republican-majority Senate passed the bill last week, as it became clear that lawmakers would need to quickly work on passage of a more ambitious economic stimulus bill.
The Senate is taking the lead on working with the White House to craft a massive economic stimulus plan that could be nearing $2 trillion in cost.
The Treasury Department proposed a direct deposit of $1200 to hundreds of millions of Americans, based on family and income size starting in April. Under that plan, the U.S. government would also offer billions of dollars in loans to small businesses teetering on the edge of financial ruin amid social distancing and quarantines. Republicans have also proposed $75 billion in aid to hospitals and health care providers.
But Democrats have expressed concerns the bill does send enough money to hospitals and state and local governments. They are also arguing the legislation does not do enough to help lower and middle-class Americans hurt by the crisis, pushing back against Republicans’ proposal for a $500 billion fund controlled by the Treasury Department to aid the hardest-hit industries.
“We want the workers to come first,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told news network CNN Sunday. “If a corporation is getting money because they need something, and airlines is the industry they're talking about, they’ve got to keep their employees, they've got to not cut the pay of their employees, and they should not do stock buybacks, increases in compensation for the top executives.”
Leverage over Republicans
Democrats have unexpected leverage in the Republican-majority Senate after Rand Paul of Kentucky became the first U.S. senator to test positive for the coronavirus. His absence – along with self-quarantining measures by Utah Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney – means McConnell must have Democrat votes to pass the measure.
Democrats blocked advancement of the legislation for the second time in as many days Monday, prompting accusations from McConnell that the opposing party was politicizing the crisis by adding unrelated requests.
“This is not a juicy political opportunity,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “This is a national emergency.”
Lawmakers are aiming to pass this new round of economic relief by the end of this week to calm an anxious public. But once the bill is passed in the Senate it would head over to the House of Representatives, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats are drafting their own version of the economic assistance bill.
“We'll be introducing our own bill and hopefully it will be compatible,” Pelosi said Sunday.
Identical legislation must pass both chambers before it can go to the White House for President Trump’s signature.
Despite warning signs negotiations could be much longer than expected, President Trump said the bill would provide much-needed assistance.
“Our goal is to get relief to Americans as quickly as possible so that families can get by and small businesses can keep workers on the payroll,” Trump told reporters Sunday. “This will help our economy, and you will see our economy skyrocket once this is over. I think it's going to skyrocket.”