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Senate passes coronavirus response measure to provide sick leave, free testing

Bloomberg

Washington — The Senate cleared the second major bill responding to the coronavirus pandemic, with lawmakers rushing to follow up with an additional economic rescue package that President Donald Trump’s administration estimates will cost $1.3 trillion.

The 90-8 vote Wednesday, following House passage on Saturday, sends Trump a measure providing paid sick leave, food assistance for vulnerable populations and financial help for coronavirus testing. As the Senate voted, Republican and Democratic leaders were already working on the next proposal.

“The Senate’s going to stay in session until we finish phase three, the next bill, and send it over to the House,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said immediately after the vote. He said Republicans hope to agree on a plan with the White House and discuss it with Democrats.

In this image from video, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks on the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 18, 2020.

“I would recommend senators stay around, close,” McConnell said. He said he couldn’t predict when a bill will be ready for a vote, but “we are moving rapidly because the situation demands it.”

Maine Republican Susan Collins said she expects the Senate to vote on the phase three bill this weekend.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said McConnell asked senators to get their proposals to him by Thursday morning. The Florida senator said Democrats have been included in the talks and added, “I feel good about where we are.”

As Americans halted much of their daily lives to avoid spreading the virus and markets continued to plunge Wednesday, the White House dramatically scaled up its request to Congress for an additional $1.3 trillion, including $500 billion in direct payments to Americans, $50 billion in loans to the distressed airline sector, and $150 billion to “severely distressed sectors” of the economy from the virus outbreak.

The crisis has galvanized Congress to act at a scale not seen since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, against the backdrop of a bitter election-year struggle for control of Congress and the White House this fall.

Getting the next package done quickly will be a herculean challenge. McConnell deputized three groups of Senate Republicans to work with the Trump administration to craft a bill, which he would then take to Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer for bipartisan negotiations.

They’d need House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on board too, before putting the massive legislation to a vote in both chambers. A House Democratic official said Wednesday that Pelosi and her key chairmen viewed the initial outline from the White House to be insufficient.

Second-ranking Senate Republican John Thune said GOP senators are working to finalize the third-phase proposal by Thursday with a vote to come as soon as the legislation is ready.

“There are lots of wheels in motion but hopefully driving in the right direction,” Thune said.

The initial aid plan passed by Congress early this month provided $8.3 billion for emergency health care needs stemming from the coronavirus.

The second plan – the measure passed by the Senate Wednesday – seeks to provide economic relief and is the result of intense negotiations between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Trump gave his seal of approval in a tweet late Friday.

It was up to McConnell to persuade enough of his Republican members to go along even though he said they might have to “gag” as they voted for it.

Paid sick leave

The centerpiece of the bill, H.R. 6201, gives workers at companies with fewer than 500 employees up to 12 weeks of paid family and sick leave to deal with virus-related issues, including staying home to care for children whose schools are closed.

That provision divided lawmakers, with some Democrats wanting a more generous package applying to all workers and some Republicans worried that the structure of the benefit would give small businesses an incentive to simply lay off workers rather than deal with the hassle of getting reimbursed by the Internal Revenue Service.

The bill also pays for virus testing, bolsters unemployment and food assistance and will send tens of billions in fresh aid to states.

For the third phase of legislation to respond to the virus, Schumer is proposing aid aimed at families, such as six months’ forbearance on all federally backed loans, including mortgages and student loans, as well as more money for hospitals and other health responses to the virus.

There also are varying views on federal aid for industries like airlines. Schumer suggested that any such federal help be accompanied by conditions such as a ban on stock buybacks and perhaps putting employees on the boards of companies that get taxpayer money.

The stepped-up action in a divided Congress made it clear that the coronavirus crisis has accelerated faster than Washington’s ability to react. Just last month, Trump asked for a mere $2.5 billion package to respond to the virus. By the time Congress sent him the $8.3 billion plan instead, it was clear that much more ambitious measures would be needed.

“We’re talking about costs today versus costs in the future,” said Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska. “There are a number of things where if we don’t act it will cost a lot more.”

Trump had been pushing for a sweeping payroll tax holiday, but that idea has gotten little traction in either party because it would be slow to get to taxpayers and do nothing for people who aren’t working.

Budget deficits 

Unlike the response to the Great Recession in 2008-2009, few lawmakers are expressing concerns about adding to the annual budget deficits, which were already heading well above $1 trillion. Even conservatives who usually pay lip service to fiscal balance noted that millions of people are at risk of losing their jobs, and interest rates for federal debt are hovering near zero.

An exception was Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who proposed spending cuts to pay for the House bill. His amendment, however, garnered just three votes.

Finishing the next package quickly would let senators return to their states and hunker down with the rest of the country. Several staff members have already tested positive, senators have been going in and out of self-quarantine and many lawmakers are senior citizens, the age group most at risk.