POLITICS

House Passes Bipartisan Coronavirus Relief Bill

The deal nearly collapsed several times as negotiations to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 bogged down.

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WASHINGTON — After multiple moments of near-collapse and a week of negotiation between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the House passed a bipartisan bill early Saturday to deal with some of the potential financial fallout for families affected by the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The bill passed the House, 363-40, just after midnight on Saturday, with 223 Democrats and 140 Republicans in support, and zero Democrats and 40 Republicans opposed. Independent Justin Amash of Michigan was the only member to vote present, over concerns that lawmakers didn’t have enough time to read the legislation.

Democrats had been intent on offering a bill that would provide for paid sick leave, which the bill partly does. But Democrats had wanted a permanent program requiring employers to provide two weeks of paid sick leave annually. Republicans balked at that idea, and instead the bill would create a national sick leave program for one year.

The bill provides two weeks of sick leave for workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with the government reimbursing 100% of the cost to employers ― placating Republican complaints that a paid sick leave policy could bankrupt some businesses. After the coronavirus crisis abates, the U.S. would go back to not having paid sick leave and will once again become the only advanced nation in the world with no paid sick leave policy.

But the bill does include a number of Democratic priorities.

“This legislation is about testing, testing, testing,” Pelosi said in a statement Friday. “To stop the spread of the virus, we have secured free coronavirus testing for everyone who needs a test, including the uninsured.”

Pelosi has emphasized the need for testing after the Trump administration stumbled in its initial response to the outbreak, with patients still largely unable to get tests for the virus. 

President Donald Trump and his administration said Friday that there was an ongoing push from his administration to make tests more available, assuring Americans that half a million tests would be ready by next week. 

“But we don’t want people to take a test if we feel that they shouldn’t be doing it,” Trump said.

On top of making tests more widely available, the bill the House approved early Saturday also includes provisions that would expand unemployment insurance ― giving states more funding if there is a rise in job losses because of coronavirus.

The bill also would suspend all so-called work requirements for food benefits for the duration of the public health emergency, while giving additional flexibility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deploy a school lunch program used to feed low-income children during the summer — in case there are extended school closures. The bill boosts funding for home-delivered meals for seniors as well as benefits under the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

The bill won’t include, as Trump and some other Republicans had wanted, a payroll tax cut. That was a low priority for Democrats, and many House members told HuffPost this week that a tax cut was a premature financial stimulus.

The bill instead focuses far more on the immediate needs of people who may get sick or may be financially strapped because of the economic effects of the measures to battle the spread of coronavirus.

The vote Saturday morning was the culmination of a week of intense negotiation ― and nearly 48 hours of constant back and forth between Pelosi and Mnuchin. House lawmakers were expected to leave the Capitol on Thursday but were held in Washington overnight because negotiations ended up dragging into Friday. And then over the course of more than a dozen phone calls Friday, the vote eventually stretched into early Saturday. 

Pelosi and Mnuchin thought they had reached a deal late Friday afternoon, but it nearly evaporated when the White House balked at some of the technical language in the bill. And that near-derailment came after multiple other near-derailments.

Ultimately, it took some stagecraft from both sides to even get an agreement in principle. After hours of haggling on Friday, Pelosi called a news conference early in the afternoon to confirm that the House would be voting on a bill ― with or without the White House’s sign-off. 

About an hour later, Trump held his own news conference, where he neglected to mention whether he’d support the legislation. 

Pelosi and Mnuchin continued talking ― even during Trump’s news conference. About 6 p.m., Pelosi announced they had a deal. But again, that agreement almost fell apart over technical language, as Democrats and Republicans both waited for the president to tweet his support.

Finally, at 8:42 p.m., Trump tweeted that he would support the agreement ― an agreement he was largely left out of negotiating.

When Pelosi was asked late Friday night if she had ever spoken to Trump to negotiate the deal, she said no. 

“There was no need to,” Pelosi said.

The only remaining question is what the Senate will do. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had previously shown opposition to similar deals ― with Republican senators blocking legislation from coming to the floor ― but it would be hard for him to ignore a bill that the president has now signed off on and the House has passed with strong bipartisan support.

McConnell is keeping the Senate in session next week, even though it was scheduled for a recess and there are multiple concerns in Washington about coronavirus spreading around the Capitol. It’s expected that his chamber will pass the bill in short order, sending it to Trump’s desk for his signature, and that Republicans will tout the president’s role in crafting the legislation.

As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Friday night, the bill is a “very good sign of bipartisanship and working together.”

“We can overcome this virus. We’ve done much bigger things before,” McCarthy said.

This story has been updated with more information about the nutrition part of the bill. 

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