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McConnell: Huge coronavirus stimulus plan ‘not the last word’

Democratic leaders didn't object outright to the proposal but made clear they had a few expectations

A man prepares for a swab at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site for residents who have symptoms and an order from a health care provider on Quincy Street in Arlington, Va., on Thursday.
A man prepares for a swab at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site for residents who have symptoms and an order from a health care provider on Quincy Street in Arlington, Va., on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans released a massive stimulus plan Thursday to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with financial relief for U.S. households and businesses having trouble staying afloat.

The package would deliver direct cash payments of up to $3,400 for married couples who earn up to $150,000 and have two children; defer payroll taxes paid by employers; provide loans secured by company assets for airlines and other hard-hit industries; boost payments to hospitals and more.

[Nurses, doctors exposed to COVID-19 who miss work may lose their job under aid bill]

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pledged to work across the aisle on the evolving package, making committee chairmen as well as top Trump administration officials available for briefings. McConnell acknowledged the legislation was likely to change over the course of discussions with the White House, Senate Democrats and House leaders. 

“We know this legislation will not be the last word,” he said. “But we need to take bold action as soon as possible.”

Democratic leaders issued a joint statement that didn’t object outright to the Senate GOP proposal, though Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York made clear they had a few expectations.

They said to win support among their caucuses, the measure needed to include expanded unemployment insurance and Medicaid funding; expanded paid leave; targeted cash payments to “those who need it most”; and a ban on stock buybacks and layoffs while limiting executive compensation for firms receiving help.

“We look forward to working in a bipartisan way to deliver for the American people as soon as humanly possible,” Pelosi and Schumer said.

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and GOP House committee chairmen said in a statement that they’ve been in regular contact with Senate Republicans but that they expect the package will “be refined.”

However, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., told Republicans on a conference call Thursday that he will whip in favor of the Senate’s bill, according to a source who declined to be identified in order to discuss private conversations.

Big checks, but not for the rich

The centerpiece of the Senate GOP bill would provide direct payments to individuals of about $1,200 per person or $2,400 for married couples filing jointly, with $500 extra per child, at a cost of $273 billion, according to a source familiar with the package.

The benefit would begin to phase down above $75,000 in adjusted gross income — or income before standard or itemized deductions and tax credits — for individuals and $150,000 for couples. The income thresholds are based on 2018 tax returns and would phase out at a rate of $5 for each $100 above the line. 

That means a single filer with AGI above $99,000 wouldn’t get a check, while that cutoff is $198,000 for married couples, according to a Senate Finance summary.

Lower-income households with little or no tax liability would get $600 to $1,200 if they have at least $2,500 in AGI.

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said that configuration may not fly with House Democrats. “Any legislation that gives the least to those who need it the most is deeply flawed,” Neal said in a statement.

[Redefining district work: House members opt to telework during coronavirus pandemic]

The White House plan envisioned two rounds of checks of equal size, distributed about six weeks apart. But it appears Senate Republicans are holding the second check in abeyance for the time being. “There’s some discussion about, let’s do the first tranche and make sure we get that right, and then we’ll see in six weeks if there’s another need,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said. 

Some Republicans, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, say they don’t like the idea of simply distributing checks. They’d rather top off current unemployment insurance.

“I personally think that if we’re going to help people, we ought to direct the cash payments maybe as a supplement to unemployment [benefits], not to the people that are still working every day,” Shelby said. “Just a blanket cash check to everybody in America making up to $75,000, I don’t know the logic of that, you know?”

The measure would also waive early withdrawal penalties for taking money out of retirement accounts, and also create a special deduction for up to $300 in charitable donations for taxpayers who don’t itemize.

The Senate GOP plan includes tax cuts specifically to businesses, including some measures that have been included in prior stimulus measures before and during the Great Recession.

In one major shift, the measure would let companies defer paying the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax, which applies to wages up to $137,700 this year. Instead, companies could pay half of that tax next year and the other half in 2022. General fund revenue would backfill the Social Security Trust Fund for the time being.

The measure would allow companies to “carry back” net operating losses incurred in 2018, 2019 or 2020 to offset taxes paid over the past five years when they were profitable generating a refund from the IRS.

The measure would let unprofitable companies generate bigger refunds from alternative minimum tax credits built up over prior years, to use instead of write-offs for equipment expenses that are only good for reducing taxable income. It would also raise the limit on businesses’ deductions for interest payments to 50 percent of income through the end of the year. The limit is currently set at 30 percent under the 2017 tax law.

Small business, airline relief

The proposal would provide $300 billion in loans to small businesses, defined as 500 employees or less. The maximum loan would be $10 million, and each loan would be tied to an applicant’s average monthly payroll mortgage, rent, utility payments, and other debt obligations over the previous year, according to a Senate Small Business Committee summary.

The package would provide $208 billion in collateralized loans and loan guarantees, with $50 billion for passenger airlines and $8 billion to cargo carriers. The remaining $108 billion would be for unspecified applicants that incur “direct losses” as a result of the pandemic.

For airlines, assistance would be revoked for companies that increase executive compensation or give executives “golden parachutes” upon their departure over a two-year period. The plan rejects an airline industry plea for grants rather than loans. And the federal government would get a stake in companies that receive loans, in the form of warrants, preferred stock or other “appropriate equity instruments.”

Separately, airlines would get relief from several aviation excise taxes on passenger tickets, cargo, arrivals and departures and fuel that currently bring in around $17 billion a year. The taxes would be suspended through Dec. 31, 2020.

Lifeline for health care sector

The package also would provide additional aid to the health care industry with a focus on increasing the number of hospital beds and respirators.

The bill would lift the across-the-board 2 percent Medicare cuts that have been in place since 2013 under a deficit reduction law, from May 1 through Dec. 31. And it would increase Medicare payments to hospitals for treating COVID-19 patients by 15 percent, and prevent scheduled cuts in payments for durable medical equipment necessary to help patients transfer home from hospitals to reduce the threat of exposure and free up beds. 

Medicaid would pay for training programs for caregivers in rural and underserved areas, and to care for the disabled in hospitals to help reduce hospital stays and free up beds. Under the proposal, Medicare would also pay hospitals separately for administering qualified antibiotics or antifungals to treat infections, as well as speed up payment determinations when the Food and Drug Administration approves new COVID-19 drugs.

This iteration of the bill would also allow high-deductible insurance plans to allow use of health savings accounts to cover telehealth services without having to first reach the deductible. High-deductible plan holders could also use HSA or flexible spending account money to pay the monthly fee for telehealth services at direct primary care outfits.

The measure would also expand allowable Medicare payments for telehealth rules from what was enacted in an earlier $8.3 billion COVID-19 supplemental, and waive some home dialysis rules so patients don’t have to receive face-to-face periodic evaluations.

Student loans, paid leave

The package also provides some financial relief to college students hit by the coronavirus. It allows the Education Department secretary to defer student loan payments for three months without any penalty to the student, and for an additional three months if the secretary deems it necessary. 

The GOP bill also includes protections for students who have to drop out of school because of the coronavirus. It would ensure that time spent out of school doesn’t affect a student’s eligibility for loans or Pell Grants.

For employers, language in the bill would ease small-business paid leave mandates in separate legislation Trump signed into law Wednesday night.

It would provide advance tax credits to offset the cost upfront to avoid cash-flow problems, and language appears to have been added that would expand the reasons for potential exemptions from the paid sick time requirement for firms with 50 or fewer workers. In the earlier legislation, the exemption only applied to workers caring for children home from school; the new bill would broaden that to those caring for others in quarantine.

David Lerman, Niels Lesniewski, Lindsey McPherson, Jennifer Shutt and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.  

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