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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress delivered a nearly $500 billion infusion of coronavirus spending Thursday, rushing new relief to employers and hospitals buckling under the strain of a pandemic that has claimed almost 50,000 American lives and one in six U.S. jobs.
The measure passed almost unanimously, but the lopsided tally belies a potentially bumpier path ahead as battle lines are being formed for much more ambitious future legislation that may prove far more difficult to maneuver through Congress.
The bipartisan measure neared passage as lawmakers gathered in Washington as a group for the first time since March 27, adopting stricter social distancing rules while seeking to prove they can do their work despite the COVID-19 crisis.
Lawmakers’ face masks and bandannas added a somber tone to their effort to aid a nation staggered by the health crisis and devastating economic costs of the pandemic.
“Millions of people out of work,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “This is really a very, very, very sad day. We come to the floor with nearly 50,000 deaths, a huge number of people impacted, and the uncertainty of it all.”
Anchoring the bill is the Trump administration’s $250 billion funding request to replenish a fund to help small- and medium-size businesses with payroll, rent and other expenses. The payroll program provides forgivable loans so businesses can continue paying workers while forced to stay closed for social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
It also contains $100 billion demanded by Democrats for hospitals and a nationwide testing program, along with a $60 billion set-aside for small banks and an alternative network of community development banks that focus on development in urban neighborhoods and rural areas ignored by many lenders. There’s also $60 billion for small-business loans and grants delivered through the Small Business Administration’s existing disaster aid program.
President Donald Trump celebrated the bill’s passage at his daily White House briefing Thursday.
“At a time when many Americans are enduring significant economic challenges, this bill will help small businesses to keep millions of workers on the payroll,” he said.
The 388-5 vote came at the end of a nettlesome path to passage. Republicans sought immediate action on Trump’s “clean” request for the small business money backed by powerful, GOP-leaning business groups, but Democrats demanded equal funding for their priorities, frustrating Republicans who accused them of seeking leverage during the crisis.
Signs of the pandemic were everywhere in the House chamber Thursday. As Pelosi spoke from the floor, she lowered a white scarf that had covered much of her face. House Chaplain Patrick Conroy delivered the opening prayer wearing a yellow protective mask, and most lawmakers and aides on the chamber’s sparsely populated floor wore masks as well.
Passage of more coronavirus relief is likely in the weeks ahead. Supporters are already warning that the business-backed Payroll Protection Program will exhaust the new $250 billion almost immediately. Launched just weeks ago, the program quickly reached its lending limit after approving nearly 1.7 million loans. That left thousands of small businesses in limbo as they sought help.
Both of Maine’s Democratic U.S. representatives, Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Jared Golden of the 2nd District, backed the measure. In a statement, Pingree praised the measure’s hospital funding and said widespread testing is key to reopening Maine’s economy, while she said the legislation does not fix “structural problems” with the small business loan program.
“This bill has several strong elements that will help our small businesses, but I know we have work left to do,” she said.
Pelosi and allies said the next measure will distribute more relief to individuals, extend more generous jobless benefits into the fall, provide another round of direct payments to most people and help those who are laid off afford health insurance.
Democrats tried to win another round of funding for state and local governments in Thursday’s bill but were rebuffed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who says he’s going to try to pump the brakes on runaway deficit spending. McConnell says he doesn’t want to bail out Democratic-governed states for fiscal problems that predated the pandemic, but there’s plenty of demand for state fiscal relief among Republicans.
After the Senate passed the latest bill Tuesday, McConnell declared that Republicans would entertain no more coronavirus rescue legislation until the Senate returns to Washington, promising rank-and-file Republicans greater say in the future legislation, rather than leaving it in the hands of bipartisan leaders.
Thursday’s measure brings total rescue funding over the four measures, as measured by the cumulative deficit impact of spending proposals and tax cuts, to $2.4 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The deficit is virtually certain to breach $3 trillion this year and is likely to go well above that when CBO issues new data as early as Friday.
Each day brings new evidence of the economic calamity wrought by the virus. Thursday morning the government reported that 4.4 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week as layoffs sweep the economy. Over the last five weeks, roughly 26 million people have filed for jobless aid, or about one in six U.S. workers.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd and Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.
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