WASHINGTON (CN) – As Congress and the White House work on more measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic and its toll on the economy, the Senate voted Wednesday to send a House-approved bill covering free testing and paid sick leave to President Donald Trump’s desk.
Passing by a 90-8 vote Wednesday afternoon, the bill looks to cushion the impact on an U.S. economy nearing recession due to fears over the virus known as COVID-19. Senators voted as the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled another 6%. The index has now lost almost all of its gains made during the Trump presidency.
States throughout the country have shuttered restaurant doors, stalled public transit systems and restricted public gatherings, forcing about a quarter of the nation’s workers to go without pay or paid time off. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 7,700 Americans have been infected by coronavirus and over 100 have died.
The multibillion-dollar bill passed Wednesday, which Trump is expected to sign, will provide paid leave for those workers without access to time-off benefits. H.R. 6201, also known as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, will provide up to 100% of a person’s salary, capped at $511 per day, for those individuals affected by the virus.
Families will also get up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave at a reduced percentage of their daily earnings—a benefit only select Americans are afforded through their employers. That measure provides up to $200 per day, per person.
In addition, testing for coronavirus infections would be free under the bill, including for people who are uninsured. Delays and shortages of tests have become a huge roadblock in preventing the spread of the disease.
As the House prepared to send the bill to the Senate this week, after first passing it Friday night, a major sticking point between Democrats and Republicans was exempting certain companies from the leave requirements. If a company has over 500 employees, the aid package would not apply to those workers and that organization would need to provide leave based on previous polices.
Companies with less than 500 workers are included in the bill, but the Department of Labor can also exclude companies with less than 50 workers from paying these benefits. These exemptions only apply if the benefit payout would jeopardize that business.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said from the Senate floor Wednesday that the House bill had “real shortcomings.” Those flaws amounted to a lack of additional exclusions for small business owners, McConnell said, and forcing those businesses to pay for their employees’ sick leave.
He said the Senate would not adjourn amid the virus outbreak until the chamber passes a “far bolder package” in support of small businesses.
“We want to help them survive this disruption, absorb the new mandate in the House bill and continue to make payroll and avoid layoffs as much as they can, and emerge from this storm in the best shape possible,” McConnell said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950, which was part of the U.S. response to the Korean War. The president later announced he would, giving him the ability to control private business production to combat the pandemic.
Reauthorizing the provision allows Trump to address the growing shortage of ventilators in the country a result of the surging number of COVID-19 cases.
“We know in two weeks the number of ventilators might become a massive problem. We must get ahead of it, and get ahead of it now,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
In addition to the bill passed Wednesday, the White House and Congress are negotiating another $1 trillion plan to stabilize the nation’s economy. This third bill would provide for $250 billion in direct cash payments to American families beginning April 6, with another stimulus payment in mid-May. It would also likely include $50 billion for nation’s airline industry and $300 billion for small businesses, two sectors that have been hit hard by the economic fallout from COVID-19.
An amendment floated Wednesday by Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., looked to cut funding unrelated to fighting the epidemic to pay for the emergency measures, such as completely ending military action in Afghanistan and slashing funding for road construction in that country.
Paul called on the Senate to stop being a “rubber stamp for wasteful spending” during his floor remarks, but the amendment was quickly defeated by a 95-3 vote.
Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced another amendment Wednesday, co-sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would boost leave available to American workers through H.R. 6201. It eventually failed in a 47-51, party-line vote.
Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., also introduced an amendment Wednesday, that would have created a temporary federal unemployment insurance program, providing two-thirds of a person’s weekly earnings if they are affected by the virus, capped at $1,000. The measure also failed 50-48.
Democrats pushed back on Johnson’s amendment, arguing workers would have to lose their jobs before applying for benefits through the proposed program.
“I don’t think unemployment insurance to be given to the states is going to result in immediate relief for the employees that need it, and again you’re creating a false structure. Requiring people to quit their jobs so they can care for a child who’s been sent home from school is absurd,” Gillibrand said.
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