WASHINGTON ― After some changes that watered down its paid sick leave provisions over the weekend, a bipartisan bill offering financial relief to vulnerable Americans affected by the coronavirus was passed by the U.S. Senate and signed by Trump on Wednesday.
“The Act makes emergency supplemental appropriations and other changes to law to help the Nation respond to the coronavirus outbreak,” Trump said in a statement.
The bill will make coronavirus testing free, expand unemployment insurance benefits, give paid leave to some displaced workers, and increase spending on Medicaid, food stamps and nutrition assistance.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the measure “well-intentioned” and urged its passage on Wednesday. But he said it had some “real shortcomings,” pointing to its paid sick leave mandates for small business. He pledged not to adjourn the Senate until it approves a broader bill to shore up the economy, rescue industries hit hard by the crisis, and put money directly into the hands of people who are suffering.
“The Senate is not going to leave small business behind,” McConnell said in a floor speech on Wednesday.
The House overwhelmingly passed the legislation early Saturday after changing it significantly over the weekend because of opposition by the White House and business groups to the bill’s paid leave provisions. Democrats said the changes were needed to secure bipartisan support and increase the bill’s chances of passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The bill now provides only 10 days of sick leave to workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic. It offers paid family leave, but only to parents who are home with kids due to school closure. The bill also includes carve-outs for many businesses, too. Companies with more than 500 employees are exempt from the bill’s paid leave provisions. Companies with fewer than 50 workers can apply for hardship relief and get out of providing both sick and family leave.
Senate Republicans expressed concern about the price tag of the bill ― its paid leave provisions alone are estimated to cost $100 billion. They also worried that mandating paid leave could bankrupt businesses, noting that many employers are already cutting jobs amid anemic demand as the economy hits a standstill.
“My counsel is to gag and vote for it anyway,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday when asked about the misgivings in his caucus, urging critics to focus on addressing them in the next bailout bill.
Apart from its paid leave provisions, the bill will make testing for the coronavirus more widely available and expand unemployment insurance ― giving states more funding if there is a rise in job losses because of the virus.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she planned on pushing for more paid sick leave guarantees in coming negotiations with Republicans over a larger bailout package, something that is expected to take place this week.
“The Democratic House will continue to make clear to the Administration that any emergency response package must put Families First before any aid to corporate America is considered,” Pelosi said in a statement on Tuesday.
One idea gaining traction on Capitol Hill is simply sending Americans cash to deal with the economic downturn sparked by the epidemic. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin gave the idea a boost on Tuesday while he announced the Trump administration was seeking at least $850 billion in funding from Congress to address the crisis, including aid to prop up struggling hospitality and airline industries.
“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately ... and I mean now, in the next two weeks,” Mnuchin said at a press conference at the White House.
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