CORONAVIRUS

House Passes 'Interim' $484 Billion Coronavirus Relief Bill

Congress replenishes a small business loan program and adds funding for hospitals and coronavirus testing.

WASHINGTON ― After weeks of bitter negotiations, Republicans and Democrats in Congress passed a nearly $500 billion coronavirus relief package on Thursday that will replenish the Paycheck Protection Program, which supports small businesses, and provide emergency money for hospitals. The package now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The House passed the bill 388-5, with all but four Republicans and one Democrat voting in favor of it. The Senate passed the bill on Tuesday by “unanimous consent,” meaning Senators agreed not to hold up the measure by requiring a recorded vote.

In the House, lawmakers weren’t so lucky. A small group of Republicans made it clear earlier this week that they were opposed to the bill and would request a formal vote, requiring at least half of the chamber’s members to be present for passage.

Over the course of about an hour and a half, lawmakers took turns coming to the House floor to vote in groups of 40. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told representatives she wanted to avoid the usual crowds during a vote, and most lawmakers were happy to observe social distancing guidelines by quickly coming to the House chamber, inserting their voting card and then immediately leaving.

But there were also lawmakers who took the coronavirus-related precautions less seriously.

During debate of the relief package, a number of Republicans could be spotted in the House chamber without masks ― and an even greater number of lawmakers seemed to take the recommended 6 foot distance between people as a mere suggestion.

Republicans, who have generally supported Trump’s widely derided response to the coronavirus crisis, largely avoided criticizing the actual legislation the House passed on Thursday. 

The bill itself would provide $310 billion more for the Paycheck Protection Program, $60 billion in economic disaster loans for small businesses, $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion more for coronavirus testing. The original funding dedicated to the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established in the $2.2 coronavirus relief bill that passed four weeks ago, ran dry after only two weeks ― and most Republicans support emergency loans for small businesses.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said two weeks ago he wouldn’t go above $250 billion, but he eventually caved to Pelosi’s demands for more small business money and funding for hospitals and testing. (Industry experts still don’t expect the additional PPP money to last more than a week.)

Instead of going after Democrats for adding more money to the small business program ― or providing funding for hospitals and testing ― Republicans criticized the creation of a select committee on the coronavirus crisis. 

The bipartisan committee is tasked with specifically overseeing how the money Congress has appropriated to the crisis will be spent. But Republicans are interpreting the creation of the committee as a sign that Democrats just want to criticize the Trump administration.

“I heard the Speaker say we need to move in a bipartisan manner,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said on the House floor. “I believe she meant that. But then I can’t forget that she said the same thing about impeachment a year ago.”

Gohmert then went on to argue that people are “social animals,” and because of isolation, there had been more suicides in Knox County, Tennessee, than deaths in that area due to coronavirus.

Coronavirus has now killed about as many people in the U.S. in two months as there are suicides in the U.S. every year ― roughly 50,000 ― and coronavirus deaths increased tenfold in the past month with little sign of slowing down.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) also took offense at the creation of a new oversight committee, arguing that there were already eight committees with jurisdiction to look at how relief money is being spent.

“The ninth is political,” Jordan said. “The ninth is looking out for Joe Biden. The ninth is to go after President Trump. This is just a continuation of the attack the Democrats have had on the president for the past four years.”

The resolution to establish the special committee was adopted along party lines, 212-182.

While four of the five members who voted against the relief package were Republicans ― Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Ken Buck (R-Colo.), Jody Hice (R-Ga.), and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) ― none of them came to the floor to speak.

Instead, the only lawmakers who expressed frustration with the legislation ― known in Congress as “Phase 3.5,” because Congress has already passed three other bills and Democratic leadership had promised a larger measure for the fourth ― came from the Democratic side.

The co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who nonetheless voted for the bill, said Thursday that the next installment of congressional action needed a “bold paycheck guarantee that stops mass unemployment, an essential workers package, and state and local government funding.” 

“Every minute, Madam Speaker, is a death, a family devastated, a business shuttered,” Jayapal continued. “We must think and deliver better.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who was the only Democrat to vote against the bill, said it was a joke that Republicans were pretending to want to urgently help small businesses.

“The only folks they have urgency around are folks like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Shake Shack,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referring to two restaurants that received loans from the original program even though they’re collectively worth more than $2 billion. “Those are the ones getting assistance in this bill. You are not trying to fix this bill for mom and pop. We had to fight to fund hospitals, fighting to fund testing. That is what we’re fighting for in this bill. It is unconscionable.

With the exception of those five members ― and Justin Amash (I-Mich.), who voted present ― Republicans and Democrats were overwhelmingly supportive of the bill, and intimated their support for additional aid in the future.

Pelosi, who largely wrote the bill through negotiations with McConnell, said Congress was still in the “mitigation” phase of combating coronavirus and that additional action would be needed. And Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said essential workers whose lives are on the line “deserve a government that strives to meet that very same level of dedication.”

“That is the promise I will make,” McCarthy said. “That we will bring the same dedication that you bring to help others that you don’t even know.”

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