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Sweeping economic aid bill to counter coronavirus passes Senate

Pelosi says House will take up measure on Friday ‘with strong bipartisan support’

Sens. Mike Crapo, left, and Chris Coons leave the Capitol after voting on the coronavirus stimulus package on Wednesday night.
Sens. Mike Crapo, left, and Chris Coons leave the Capitol after voting on the coronavirus stimulus package on Wednesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate voted Wednesday night to send the House a massive financial relief package to tide the U.S. economy and its strained health care sector over for the next few months as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to escalate across the country.

The vote followed days of arduous negotiations between Trump administration officials and Democrats, as they sought a bipartisan agreement that would provide direct financial assistance to individual Americans, expand unemployment insurance and help small businesses that have closed to try to reduce the spread of the disease.

The aid bill also includes substantial funding to help hospitals and doctors prepare for a wave of patients and funding for government departments working to reduce the virus’s impact.

The 96-0 vote came shortly after Senate leaders finally released official legislative text Wednesday night around 10:15 p.m., following a long day of “final drafts” circulating throughout Washington.

The bill now goes to the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it will be taken up on Friday “with strong bipartisan support.” Democratic leaders signaled they’d try to clear the package by voice vote.

Even though the Senate voted quickly after the $2 trillion, 880-page bill was released, lawmakers spent the past few days on the floor debating how exactly Congress should provide financial assistance.

Those disagreements on Wednesday centered around how the legislation would expand unemployment assistance, including a $600 per week added benefit for four months through July. Critics said that would give individuals more compensation than they had earned before they were laid off, and more than prospective employers might pay.

“I want to provide 100 percent of the salary while an American is laid off because of COVID-19,” said Tim Scott, R-S.C. “Not a raise for not working. Not 200 percent of your income while on unemployment.”

Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said the original goal was to ensure full salary replacement for all jobless workers. But following a meeting with the Labor Department, senators and staff learned that would be nearly impossible. The Labor official told lawmakers that only six or eight states had computer systems in place that could handle such a change.

“They tell us it will take them months to reprogram their computers to make the simple calculation that says you never get paid more in unemployment that you were making on the job,” Durbin said. “That was the reality. We didn’t make that up.”

The Senate later voted 48-48 to reject an amendment from Scott, Ben Sasse, R-Neb., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., that would have capped unemployment insurance payments at 100 percent of a person’s salary before they were laid off.

During the previous few days days, senators debated other aspects of the bill with Democrats chastising Republicans for not doing enough to assist workers being harmed by the crisis and GOP lawmakers rebuking their colleagues for slowing the process for what they viewed as political motives.

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‘Working hard’

Just off the Senate floor as those debates heated up, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House legislative affairs Director Eric Ueland and key staff set up a temporary office in the ornate Lyndon B. Johnson room. The group spent days walking between that room and the offices of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., for dozens of meetings.

Along the way, they’d give reporters updates about “working hard” and “getting closer.” On more than one occasion, Ueland knocked on the wooden Ohio Clock to ward off bad luck.

Those talks paid off just around 1:30 a.m. early Wednesday morning when McConnell and Schumer announced they’d reached a bipartisan agreement.

The drama didn’t end there though as staff and negotiators worked throughout the day on preliminary final, final and then “final-final” bill text — much to the confusion of those waiting to read what senators would actually vote on.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Wednesday evening that chamber won’t try to clear the legislation via unanimous consent as some expected. “The Republicans have told us that’s not possible from their side,” she said.

Instead the House will bring some members back to the chamber for a voice vote. Should someone request a roll call vote, Pelosi said, that will take place by proxy for any member that doesn’t want to return amid a global health crisis.

“If somebody calls for a recorded vote, we have options. And once they know we have options, they probably won’t call for it,” she said.

President Donald Trump said during a White House briefing Wednesday evening that he will sign the legislation.

The Senate adjourned until April 20 after the vote. But McConnell put senators on notice that he’d be prepared to reconvene earlier, particularly if more aid to combat the coronavirus is necessary.

Indeed, talk of additional legislation permeated the Capitol on Wednesday, despite a $2 trillion fiscal relief measure working its way through. That’s equal to some 9 percent of the U.S. economy, dwarfing any modern legislative effort that’s come before it other than wartime buildups.

Social distancing

Most senators did not take advantage of the extended 30-minute votes to socially distance and avoid lingering or clustering around one another on the floor.

During the unemployment insurance amendment vote, it was mostly Republicans who lingered, about a dozen chatting in small groups of two or three and standing a few feet apart. When Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., spotted Graham he jokingly shouted across the chamber “troublemaker” — a reference to his role in the unemployment spat.

Some senators avoided coming into the chamber. Patty Murray, D-Wash., cast her vote from the doorway on the right-hand side of the chamber where Democrats often enter. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., signaled to the desk his vote from the doorway of the Republican cloakroom.

But as the time on the unemployment insurance amendment vote drew to a close, senators started to cluster on the floor, seemingly awaiting the earliest opportunity to cast a vote on final passage and get out of town. At least 45 senators were on the floor around that time.

As the clerk started calling the roll on final passage, senators initially crowded around the desk to make sure their votes were registered. But the crowds thinned out and the chamber emptied long before the 30-minute vote closed.

During the votes Schumer, who had spent countless hours in negotiations over the past few days, was eager to tell colleagues about his plan to leave Washington for New York as soon as the vote was over.

“Guess when I’m driving home?” he told Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. “Now. I want to get out of here.”

A summary of the $340 billion supplemental appropriations component is here. A summary of the rest of the massive package, including tax, unemployment insurance health care, small-business loans, aid to airlines and other hard-hit industries and more can be found here.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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