Trump signs $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday signed into law the largest rescue measure in history, a $2 trillion economic relief package meant to speedily put money directly into Americans’ pockets while also helping hospitals, businesses, and state and local governments struggling with the surging COVID-19 pandemic.

The president held a televised signing ceremony just hours after the House approved the bill by a voice vote, on a day when the United States surpassed all other nations in confirmed cases of the coronavirus infection, more than 97,000. The number of dead approached 1,500 as he signed the measure into law.

The Senate had passed the 96-0 on Wednesday following extensive negotiations between Democrats and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, significantly altering and expanding a package initially proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The fact that Democrats and Republicans could come together in otherwise polarized times reflected the severity of the health and economic crises gripping the country. The parties’ unanimity was especially remarkable given the unprecedented cost of the measure, an amount that is equivalent to more than half of the $3.6 trillion in tax revenues that the U.S. government expects to collects this year.

Yet the bipartisanship did not extend to Trump’s signing ceremony. He did not invite any Democrats to the White House, only McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and three other senior House Republicans. He and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have not spoken in months.

The relief provisions would touch many aspects of American life. Along with providing a one-time direct payout of up to $1,200 for most American adults, the bill includes $500 billion in loans to struggling businesses, $377 billion in loans and grants for small businesses, $150 billion for local, state and tribal governments facing a drop in revenue and $130 billion for hospitals dealing with an onslaught of patients.

The package also blocks foreclosures and evictions during the crisis on properties where the federal government backs the mortgage; pauses federal student loan payments for six months and waives the interest; gives states millions of dollars to begin planning for the November election by offering mail-in or early voting; and provides more than $25 billion for food assistance programs such as SNAP.

It expanded who qualifies for unemployment assistance to include people who were furloughed, gig workers and freelancers. Coming after a week in which a record 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, the measure provided a $600 increase in jobless benefits for four months, on top of what states provide as base compensation, and extended by 13 weeks the duration of benefits, which is typically 26 weeks.

Cultural institutions also got a hand: $75 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which give grants to museums and artists; $7.5 million for the Smithsonian Institution; and $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Emergency responders could qualify for help with child care expenses. The U.S. Postal Service received a loan of $10 million, though Democrats have warned that the agency will need more to stay afloat. And the measure allowed the Food and Drug Administration to speed approval of over-the-counter drugs and sunscreens.

House Democratic leaders have already begun talking about the need for a fourth relief package, assuring restive Democrats that more of their priorities will be in the next bill. Pelosi told reporters on Thursday that it should include provisions for workers’ paid leave and safety protections, for covering the cost of COVID-19 treatments and for yet more funding for food stamps and state and local governments.

“We know that this cannot be our final bill,” Pelosi said on the House floor Friday, adding that it is a “down payment” toward what American workers, businesses and hospitals will need.

However, McCarthy told reporters Thursday he’s not ready to begin discussing a fourth package.

“I wouldn’t be so quick to say you have to write something else. Let’s let this bill work,” he said.

The final vote did not go exactly as the Democratic and Republican House leaders planned. Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian conservative from Kentucky, demanded that a majority of members be present and that each lawmaker’s vote be recorded.

Massie cited the Constitution to support his action, and acted despite withering attacks from President Donald Trump on Twitter. The president went so far as to call for Massie to be ousted from the party.

Democratic and Republican leaders had hoped to hold a simple voice vote, to protect members from potentially contracting the coronavirus by traveling and gathering in the Capitol. Based on Massie’s earlier threat that he would insist on a quorum — 216 members at the moment — they summoned lawmakers back.

“I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent in an empty chamber,” Massie said before requesting the vote.

House leaders used a procedural move to quash Massie’s motion for a recorded roll call of lawmakers. They had dozens of House members take seats in the public galleries where tourists normally sit, rather than have everyone stand next to each other on the House floor to demonstrate that a quorum was present. Some wore latex gloves or stopped by the hand sanitizer dispensers on the way into the chamber.

When Massie called a second time for a roll call vote, he failed to get a fifth of those present to back up his demand for a recorded vote, as required by House rules. If he had succeeded, the move likely would have delayed passage of the bill until Saturday, when additional lawmakers could return.

After more than three hours of debate, the $2 trillion bill passed by a voice vote in just under a minute. The Senate passed it 96-0 Wednesday following extensive negotiations between Democrats and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.

The threat that a single representative might object left lawmakers hopping into cars to drive or finding last-minute flights back to Washington in case they need to be present to pass the largest single economic aid package in U.S. history.

Trump lambasted Massie on Twitter on Friday morning. “Looks like a third rate Grandstander named @RepThomasMassie, a Congressman from, unfortunately, a truly GREAT State, Kentucky, wants to vote against the new Save Our Workers Bill in Congress. He just wants the publicity. He can’t stop it, only delay, which is both dangerous … … and costly,” Trump tweeted.

Among those who rushed to the Capitol were California Democrats Gil Cisneros of Yorba Linda, Mike Levin of San Juan Capistrano, Jimmy Gomez of Los Angeles and Brad Sherman of Northridge, who each tweeted about catching a cross-country red-eye flight to be in the Capitol ahead of the morning vote.

Gomez tweeted, “Flying back to DC to vote for the stimulus bill. It could pass on a voice vote but some members want to make a statement by potentially asking for an in-person vote. Not all my colleagues can go back for health reasons. So, I’m doing it for them & for my constituents.”

Democratic Rep. Nanette Barragán of San Pedro, one of those who could not return, replied to thank Gomez: “My 79 year old mom with Alzheimers whom I am a nightly caregiver for and I thank you!”

Members of both parties acknowledged that they oppose portions of the bill, by far the largest of Congress’ three measures to date responding to the pandemic. But they said they would vote for it to help Americans withstand the economic hardships and stem the spread of the pandemic.

“This is not a perfect bill and I’m concerned about the $2 trillion price tag, but the American people need help. And this response to the present crisis will put money into the pockets of struggling workers and families,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said.

Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, said the government is obligated to step in: “When the government shut down the economy, it assumed the responsibility of bringing it back.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., noted that 13 people died in Elmhurst Hospital in her New York City district Thursday night and assailed the bill for its provisions for big businesses. “What did the Senate majority fight for? One of the largest corporate bailouts … in American history. Shameful. The greed of that fight is wrong, for crumbs for our families!” Ocasio-Cortez said.


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