Congress clears 2nd major coronavirus package; 3rd in the works

The U.S. Capitol Dome. www.aoc.gov/cc/capitol/dome.cfm. (Photo credit: U.S. government work)

WASHINGTON — A second major coronavirus package cleared the U.S. Senate Wednesday and is now headed to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The bill passed 90-8, with overwhelming bipartisan support. The multi-billion dollar measure aims to slow the spread of a new coronavirus and stimulate the economy as a major recession looms. Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet voted yes. Sen. Cory Gardner is in self-quarantine after contact with a constituent who tested positive for the virus and did not vote. 

The package would provide free access to tests for the virus, including for those without health insurance. It would also give workers affected by the virus temporary paid sick leave, boost unemployment benefits, strengthen government food programs for children, older people and those with low incomes and help states meet expenses for Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor.

“It is aimed at making it easier for people to socially distance themselves,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) said in an interview.

Trump indicated his support for the bill last week. But it hit a political snag over the weekend, delaying final passage as social distancing measures set in and as the hospitality, entertainment, travel and other major industries ground to a halt.

After intense negotiations with the White House last week, the U.S. House passed a version of the bill early Saturday morning. The Senate was expected to take it up Monday, but objections to paid sick leave provisions delayed passage.

Several senators sought to amend the bill during Wednesday’s floor debate, including a failed effort by GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin to strip out the paid leave provision and replace it with a new unemployment insurance fund for people affected by the pandemic. 

The legislation comes after Trump signed an $8.3 billion measure earlier this month funding research, treatment, vaccines and personal protective equipment for health care workers. 

‘Bold, bipartisan action’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor Wednesday to pledge further action. Senators are developing proposals to help individuals, families and small businesses weather financial challenges in the weeks and months ahead and strengthen the health care system and support its medical professionals, he said earlier this week. 

The price tag could reach $1 trillion or more to cover loans, direct payments to individuals and corporate access to capital, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday afternoon. “The president wants to put money in the economy now,” he said.

Senate Republicans and Mnuchin were mapping the contours of bill No. 3 early this week, and McConnell pledged to keep the Senate in session until it passes. Details are still taking shape, but the New York Times reported Wednesday that the administration is considering $500 billion in direct payments to U.S. taxpayers and $300 billion to help small businesses meet payroll.

The discussions came amid the administration’s decision this week to allow taxpayers to defer for 90 days income tax payments on up to $1 million that were due next month.

“This is a moment for bold and bipartisan action,” McConnell said Tuesday. The bill passed Wednesday can “only be the beginning” of the federal government’s response to the crisis.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also called for bold federal action in response to the crisis. He mentioned expanded unemployment insurance; increased funding for Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor; loan forbearance for small businesses, students and families; a temporary stop to evictions and foreclosures; funding for emergency child care; help for schools providing remote learning; and support for Native American reservations. 

“When it comes to this cascading crisis, we should help our fellow Americans first,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Industry bailouts should not be at the top of our priority list.”

Lawmakers also called for utilizing the U.S. Department of Defense in the nation’s response, and Trump on Wednesday announced he is invoking the Defense Production Act to speed up manufacturing and distribution of medical supplies and equipment, CNN reported.

‘We will rally together’

Earlier this week, Trump urged Americans to homeschool children and avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people, undertake unnecessary travel or eat out. Such guidance could be in effect until mid-summer, he said. 

“If everyone makes … these critical changes and sacrifices now we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus,” he said at a Monday afternoon press conference.

Trump declared a national emergency over the “invisible enemy” last week, freeing up as much as $50 billion to help the country weather the pandemic and waiving restrictions on health providers and facilities. He said he was not considering a nationwide lockdown at that point.

On Wednesday afternoon, CDC’s website cited more than 7,000 confirmed and presumptive positive coronavirus cases — nearly double the amount on Tuesday — in the United States. Cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, were reported in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories, and had caused 97 deaths in the country as of Wednesday afternoon.

Many experts, however, say the true number of cases is likely greater given the limited amount of testing that has been conducted.

Allison Stevens is an independent reporter, writer, editor, and consultant in the Washington, D.C., area. She is a correspondent for The Newsroom's Washington bureau and can be reached at astevens@statesnewsroom.com.

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