Lawmakers began negotiating a third economic stimulus bill to prevent the U.S. economy from cracking under the weight of the coronavirus epidemic even as efforts stalled Monday to finish work on a second bill that passed the House early Saturday morning.
The snag over the House-passed bill reflected the rapidly changing response to the economic impact of the coronavirus. House Democrats and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin agreed Monday night on six changes to the bill, which passed the House later in the evening without objections, but Senate Republicans refused to say whether they would supported the legislation until they see the final product.
“We may go back and forth with the House a little bit,” President Trump said earlier Monday of last-minute negotiations on changes to the House-passed bill.
The House-passed bill would guarantee sick leave for a significant chunk of the U.S. workforce in the event of illness from the coronavirus, although lawmakers have continued to argue about how many workers should be covered.
The bill would also pay for testing and provide expanded food aid and unemployment assistance for people who lose work because of the pandemic. It comes on top of an $8.3-billion emergency spending measure that Congress passed early this month to respond to the crisis.
Already, lawmakers are considering what would go into a third stimulus package in light of new demands on Americans asked to stay inside and away from work, hospitals that are preparing for a crush of new patients and an airline industry that says it will need billions of dollars in support.
Some lawmakers advocate a measure that would rival the size of the stimulus bill passed in the first weeks of the Obama administration to respond to the 2008 financial crisis. The economy risks falling into a deep recession now as it did then, they say.
Airline industry officials say their industry will need upward of $50 billion to prevent financial ruin. The nation’s hospitals say they will immediately need $1 billion to prepare their facilities and workforce for the expected onslaught of new COVID-19 cases.
Senate Democrats plan to release a proposal by Tuesday that would provide at least $750 billion in economic assistance, including plans to address hospital capacity, expand unemployment insurance, provide federal loan forbearance, fund emergency child care and deliver help to small business.
Republicans also gathered ideas. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) proposed giving a $1,000 check to each American adult to help people meet their short-term financial needs. He would also provide grants to small businesses, defer education loans and require insurance companies to temporarily cover tele-health. Notably, his plan dovetails with some of the Democrats’ plans.
Many suggestions have also been made to move the April 15 tax deadline.
The hectic legislative pace mirrored that seen during the 2008 financial bailout, when the typically slow-moving Congress acted with unaccustomed speed on large, complex pieces of legislation.
“In my more than 40 years in the United States Senate, few moments have demanded our bipartisan leadership more than this crisis,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate, said on the floor as lawmakers got off flights into Washington on Monday.
Despite the frenzy of proposals, however, lawmakers continued to stall over the bill that passed the House over the weekend. Neither House leaders nor Trump detailed the last-minute changes they hoped to make or how soon the bill would be able to move to the Senate. Mnuchin was expected to be on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, a sign that Senate Republicans may need persuading to support the package.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) predicted that Senate Republicans would not vote for the House bill without changes.
“I don't think the House bill is going to pass the Senate as it is written,” he said on Fox News on Monday morning.
“There’s no sense of urgency in the Senate as there should be,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “For the people across this country who are facing this virus and the disruption in their lives. Some of those people are losing their jobs.”
Opposition from Senate Republicans to the House-passed bill came even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week indicated that Mnuchin would speak for Republicans in his negotiations with Pelosi.
One major issue is the scope of the bill's new requirement for paid sick leave. The bill requires many businesses to provide seven days of paid sick leave, with an additional 14 days during a public health crisis, such as the coronavirus outbreak.
But the bill exempts companies with 500 or more employees. That was done with the understanding that many large employers already provide such a benefit. That threshold was not changed.
Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) said on CNN that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the Trump administration would not agree to the bill unless large companies were exempt.
“I’m incredibly frustrated that we exempted employers with 500 or more employees,” she said.
Many Democrats would like to expand the bill to cover larger companies. At the same time, some Senate Republicans have indicated they are worried that the paid sick leave requirement would burden small companies.
"I am very concerned about some of the mandates in this bill that will hurt small businesses," said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). "And I’m concerned that adding layers of government bureaucracy, regulation and mandates will make it harder for help to get to the people that need it most — hourly workers, people who rely on tips, and workers in the gig economy."
Though the bill would require all employers to cover the first seven days of sick pay, businesses with 50 or fewer employees could be reimbursed by the federal government for the additional 14 days that would be mandated during a health emergency.
Also hampering quick movement was the fact that the vast majority of House members left Washington after the vote on Saturday. Though Pelosi can go to the House floor to ask for approval of any final changes she and Mnuchin negotiate, any House member can block that fast-track process from happening.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a conservative Republican who was often a thorn in the side of the Republican leadership when they controlled Congress, said Monday morning that he would demand to read the bill first — and chided the California delegation, an apparent knock at both Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).
“My constituents did not elect the California delegation to represent them, they elected me —and that’s what I am trying to do,” he wrote on Twitter. “I will not give my consent without first reading these very serious changes.”
Ultimately, he allowed the bill to pass, saying that the changes "make the bill better than it was when it got passed."
A House Democratic aide called changes "technical corrections to half a dozen provisions."
Meantime, the Senate completed work on another measure, quickly approving a 77-day extension of the government's authority to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens and foreigners under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, better known as FISA.
The stopgap plan is designed to give lawmakers more time to work out a long-term compromise over the FBI's foreign intelligence surveillance authority.