Less than five weeks ago, a deeply divided Senate acquitted President Donald Trump almost entirely along partisan lines. Now that same polarized body must come together to reach a consensus quickly on a massive spending plan to bring relief to the millions of Americans suffering from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Normally, Congress spends weeks — and often months — hashing out this type of legislation. But as the disease spreads across the country, simultaneously infecting thousands of Americans and ravaging businesses, lawmakers are moving to provide massive aid to Americans and stabilize the U.S. economy within days. The heightened sense of urgency and the glimmers of bipartisanship around the effort underscore just how imposing the economic and financial threats of COVID-19 are, and how alarmed federal authorities are as the disease brings whole sectors of the economy to a halt.
“We occasionally have these great crises and, when they occur, we are able to rise above our normal partisanship and, in many times, our normal positions because these are not normal times,” McConnell told reporters in a briefing room that was rearranged to put physical distance between participants. “This is not an ordinary situation so it requires extraordinary measures.”
Earlier this month, Congress passed an $8.3 billion spending package as the virus was popping up in some states but its reach within the U.S. was still unknown. That funding, which was more than triple what the Trump Administration initially requested, was meant to help government agencies in halting the spread and to fund vaccine developments.
But as the number of infections rose, it became rapidly evident more was needed. On Tuesday, the Senate was poised to pass a second major stimulus package, which the House sent over on Monday evening, offering economic relief to Americans whose lives have been disrupted by newer developments like restaurant closures, the shuttering of entire states’ schools and self-imposed quarantines. Discussions are also underway for a third bill — likely with the highest price tag — that would offer assistance to struggling small businesses and could also include sending individual checks to Americans. All told, the total cost to taxpayers could exceed $1 trillion.
Tuesday’s early optimism over two potential big stimulus packages becoming law gave the suffering stock market a boost. But the Senate ended the day without a vote on one package to help nervous workers and businesses, and with no explicit assurance lawmakers would imminently pass the other.
The House passed a relief bill with overwhelming bipartisan support on March 14, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had to work out an additional “technical correction” that ended up scaling back its paid leave provision — a sticking point during negotiations over the bill. The House unanimously approved the new version on Monday.
Under the version of the bill proposed by House Democrats on March 11, full-time workers would have been eligible to accrue seven days worth of sick leave on a permanent basis, and 14 additional days of paid leave during public health emergencies. Republican lawmakers, though, were concerned those benefits would impose a burden on small businesses and lead to layoffs. In the final version, there is no permanent sick leave provision, and businesses with fewer than 50 employees would be able to ask the Department of Labor for exemptions to the two weeks of coronavirus-related leave included in the final version.
The bill also includes free coronavirus testing for anyone who needs it, expands programs like food assistance for children who rely on school meals and employment insurance and increases Medicaid funds for overworked state and local governments.
Even with the final tweaks, Republican Senators expressed misgivings about the paid-leave component of the bill. Some of McConnell’s rank-and-file members had hoped to amend the House’s version and expand on it as Tuesday began. But McConnell told lawmakers that help for hotels that are suddenly emptied can be part of the next, bigger stimulus package. “We all know a bigger proposal is necessary,” McConnell said as he told colleagues uncomfortable with the House’s $100 billion-plus bill to “gag and vote for it anyway.”
Republican lawmakers appeared poised to heed McConnell’s call. “What they’ve done in the House, I don’t think can be changed by Republicans in the Senate,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, conceding that the Senate would likely just vote on the package and move on to the next one.
But as Tuesday evening wore on, it was evident things were stalled. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, an ally of the White House, proposed an amendment that would give the President authority to transfer funds as necessary and end spending in Afghanistan — a procedural roadblock that was doomed for inevitable failure. It could return for a vote as soon as Wednesday, but there were clear signs not everyone was on board.
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“D.C. needs to act a lot more urgently than we usually do,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican. But, he added, “There is a herd mentally around this building right now where a lot of normally smart people are literally saying things like, ‘The most important thing is being fast even if the ideas being advocated for aren’t really ready for primetime and can’t withstand the scrutiny of debate.’ That is a really dumb idea.”
Aides at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue know the bill before the Senate now, whenever it passes, will not be the last measure Congress takes to help Americans weather the pandemic. McConnell has deputized his colleagues into three “task force” operations to draft a follow-up package that could put cash directly into Americans’ pockets, help businesses survive the downturn and enable banks to be able to continue lending. This is where Wall Street and Main Street alike would find help; the airlines alone are asking for $60 billion in assistance.
The politics of such a big package are expected to be fraught. The broad call for unity and urgency did not translate into unanimity; everyone has their own version of what the next and possibly biggest package should look like. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday unveiled a $750 billion package that carried his party’s ambitions for a recovery. Mnunchin offered an $850 billion package, which included some overlaps with Democrats’ requests. And, at the White House, President Donald Trump indicated that the total price tag to taxpayers was going to top $1 trillion.
For now, McConnell is assembling his proposal with only Republican input, and the fast-changing dynamics are making Senators nervous. “This is a Herculean task from a legislative point of view, to craft something this significant with 53 people. It just, you know, can’t be done,” McConnell told reporters.
The final cost could be staggering, particularly for Republicans who usually pride themselves on fiscal responsibility. Republicans, seemingly overnight, shifted their orthodoxy away from small-government, market-based capitalism to full-throated championing of corporate subsidies. Asked what had changed, McConnell likened the situation to others he has faced in the Senate, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 2008 stock market crash and the 2013 fiscal cliff, which threatened spikes in taxes and massive cuts in government spending.
McConnell told colleagues that they should prepare to stay in Washington for the near future; once dispersed to the states, re-assembling the aged chamber could be a challenge and even a life-threatening exercise. McConnell said he would take precautions, such as longer windows to vote so as to avoid a jumble at doors or crowding on the floor. But he wants his colleagues together.
“We’re not going to leave this building until we get the job done,” Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters at a largely deserted Capitol on Tuesday. “It may take us a few days or a few weeks, but we’re going to get the job done.”
— With reporting by Abby Vesoulis/Columbus, Ohio