Senate Passes Powerhouse $2 Trillion Virus Bailout Bill

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate late Wednesday night passed a roughly $2 trillion economic support bill responding to the coronavirus outbreak that includes direct payments to most Americans, as well as hundreds of billions of dollars for small businesses and industries affected by the pandemic.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. gives a thumbs up as he leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, where a deal has been reached on a coronavirus bill. The 2 trillion dollar stimulus bill is expected to be voted on in the Senate Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The core pieces of the package, which passed 96-0 shortly before midnight, include direct payments to most U.S. adults, hundreds of billions of dollars in forgivable loans to help small businesses maintain payroll and some half-a-trillion dollars for industries struggling amid the outbreak, according to final text first obtained by Politico.

“When our nation comes through this and takes flight on the other side, it will be because our American heroes won this fight,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “All the Senate can do is to give them the resources to do it, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do today.”

The direct payments would deliver $1,200 for adults and $500 for children. Unlike earlier versions of the bill, the payments now extend to people with little or no income but still phase out for individuals making more than $75,000 or married couples who make more than $150,000.

With widespread layoffs due to state-ordered closures to stem the outbreak, the bill expands unemployment insurance by allowing the program to reach more people and increasing benefits by $600 per week.

This provision briefly threatened to derail the bill’s accelerated path to becoming law, as a group of Republican senators — led by Senators Tim Scott, Ben Sasse, Lindsey Graham and Rick Scott — said it would mean many workers would get a pay raise by dropping into unemployment.

This “drafting error,” the senators said, could incentivize companies to let employees go and for workers not to rejoin the workforce, even as lawmakers are trying to incentivize companies to maintain payroll.

The senators argued this could lead to understaffing in key areas of the workforce fighting the outbreak or make it harder for businesses to start back up more easily when the threat of the virus lifts.

“You’re literally incentivizing taking people out of the workforce at a time when we need critical infrastructure supplied for the workers,” Graham said at a press conference Wednesday. “If this is not a drafting error, then it’s the worst idea I’ve seen in a long time, and that’s saying a lot given the fact that we’re in Washington.”

As a potential fix, the senators proposed an amendment that would cap unemployment benefits at the amount of an employee’s full salary before the outbreak. Their amendment failed on a vote shortly before the Senate approved the full package.

In this image from video, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks on the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)

The loans to small businesses would cover 250% of a business’s average monthly payroll, capped at $10 million. The loans would be forgiven if businesses use the money to maintain payroll or meet certain other expenses like rent, utilities and mortgage obligations. The legislation provides $350 billion for the loan program plus $17 billion in small business debt relief.

The bill also gives $150 billion to state, tribal and local governments and some $150 billion for the health care system, including for hospitals and the purchase of testing and protective supplies for health care workers. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hailed the provisions as a key part of the agreement struck between Republicans and Democrats.

The bill has come together after days of tense negotiations between the Senate and the White House. Republicans first put forward the proposal last week, but Democrats twice blocked it from clearing a procedural hurdle over objections to certain provisions.

One of those provisions was oversight of the $500 billion relief fund for industries. Schumer claimed victory on that front Wednesday, saying Democrats won increased conditions on large companies receiving the money, including by preventing them from using the funds on stock buybacks while receiving government assistance and for a year after.

Schumer also noted additional oversight of the fund and a provision preventing money from going to businesses controlled by President Donald Trump, his family, the leaders of executive agencies or members of Congress.

In a floor speech on Wednesday morning, Schumer said the bill was the product of compromise and said Democrats can support its passage given those changes.

“We have before us an imperfect bill but a necessary one,” Schumer said. “Despite its flaws, it is far better than where we started, and it is time to pass it.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told members the House will take up the measure Friday. The chamber is expected to pass the bill on voice vote, allowing lawmakers to remain in their districts rather than make the trip to Washington to vote. Any one member could object to passing the legislation in that manner, in which case a full vote would be required.

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