[By SARAH D. WIRE]
WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday signed into law the largest rescue measure in history, a $2-trillion economic relief package meant to speedily put money directly into Americans’ pockets while also helping hospitals, businesses, and state and local governments struggling with the surging COVID-19 pandemic.
The president held a televised signing ceremony just hours after the House approved the bill by a voice vote, on a day when the United States surpassed all other nations in confirmed cases of the coronavirus infection, more than 97,000. The number of dead approached 1,500 as he signed the measure into law.
“I want to thank Democrats and Republicans for coming together and putting America first,” Trump said at the ceremony.
The Senate had passed the legislation 96-0 on Wednesday following extensive negotiations between Democrats and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, significantly altering and expanding a package initially proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
The fact that Democrats and Republicans could come together in otherwise polarized times reflected the severity of the health and economic crisis gripping the country. The parties’ unanimity was especially remarkable given the unprecedented cost of the measure, an amount that is equivalent to more than half of the $3.6 trillion in tax revenues that the U.S. government expects to collects this year.
Yet the bipartisanship did not extend to Trump’s signing ceremony. He did not invite any Democrats to the White House, only McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and three other senior House Republicans. He and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) have not spoken in months.
The relief provisions would touch many aspects of American life. Along with providing aone-time direct payout of up to $1,200 for most American adults, the bill includes $500 billion in loans to struggling businesses, $377 billion in loans and grants for small businesses, $150 billion for local, state and tribal governments facing a drop in revenue and $130 billion for hospitals dealing with anonslaught of patients.
The package also blocks foreclosures and evictions during the crisis on properties where the federal government backs the mortgage; pauses federal student loan payments for six months and waives the interest; gives states millions of dollars to begin planning for the November election by offering mail or early voting, and provides more than $25 billion for food assistance programs such as SNAP.
It expanded who qualifies for unemployment assistance to include people who were furloughed, gig workers and freelancers. Coming after a week in which a record 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, the measure provided a $600 increase in jobless benefits for four months, on top of what states provide as base compensation, and extended by 13 weeks the duration of benefits, which is typically 26 weeks.
Cultural institutions also got a hand: $75 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which give grants to museums and artists; $7.5 million for the Smithsonian Institution and $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Emergency responders could qualify for help with child care expenses. The U.S. Postal Service received a loan of $10 million, though Democrats have warned that the agency will need more to stay afloat. And the measure allows the Food and Drug Administration to speed approval of over-the-counter drugs and sunscreens.
House Democratic leaders have already begun talking about the need for a fourth relief package, assuring restive Democrats that more of their priorities will be in the next bill. Pelosi on Thursday told reporters that it should include provisions for workers’ paid leave and safety protections, for covering the cost of COVID-19 treatments and for yet more funding for food stamps and state and local governments.
“We know that this cannot be our final bill,” Pelosi said on the House floor Friday, adding that it is a “downpayment” toward what American workers, businesses and hospitals will need.
However, McCarthy told reporters Thursday he’s not ready to begin discussing a fourth package. “I wouldn’t be so quick to say you have to write something else. Let’s let this bill work,” he said.
The final vote did not go exactly as the Democratic and Republican House leaders planned. Maverick Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian conservative from Kentucky, demanded that a majority of members be present and that each lawmaker’s vote be recorded.
Massie cited the Constitution to support his action, and acted despite withering attacks from Trump on Twitter. The president called Massie “a third rate Grandstander” and went so far as to call for him to be ousted from the party.
Democratic and Republican leaders had hoped to hold a simple voice vote, to protect members from potentially contracting the coronavirus by traveling and gathering in the Capitol. Based on Massie’s earlier threat that he would insist on a quorum — 216 members at the moment — they summoned lawmakers back, forcing lawmakers to drive or find last-minute flights back to Washington.
“I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent in an empty chamber,” a defiant Massie said before requesting the vote.
House leaders used a procedural move to quash Massie’s motion for a recorded roll call of lawmakers. They had dozens of House members take seats in the public galleries where tourists normally sit, rather than have everyone stand next to each other on the House floor to demonstrate that a quorum was present. Some wore latex gloves or stopped by the hand sanitizer dispensers on the way into the chamber.
When Massie called a second time for a roll call vote, he failed to get a fifth of those lawmakers present to back up his demand for a recorded vote, as required by House rules. If he had succeeded, the move likely would have delayed passage of the bill until Saturday, when additional lawmakers could return.
After more than three hours of debate, the $2-trillion bill passed by a voice vote in just under a minute. Members of both parties acknowledged that they opposed portions of the bill, but they said they would vote for it to help Americans withstand the economic hardships and stem the spread of the pandemic.
Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) said the government is obligated to step in: “When the government shut down the economy, it assumed the responsibility of bringing it back.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) noted that 13 people died in Elmhurst Hospital in her New York City district Thursday night and assailed the bill for its provisions for big businesses. “What did the Senate majority fight for? One of the largest corporate bailouts … in American history. Shameful. The greed of that fight is wrong, for crumbs for our families!” Ocasio-Cortez said.