In rare bipartisan fashion, the Senate voted unanimously late Wednesday night to pass the largest emergency relief package in United States history to alleviate economic hardships that the coronavirus pandemic has placed on millions of Americans.
The measure passed 96-0, a show of overwhelming unity. The legislation will now head to the Democratic-led House, where it expected to be approved Friday morning, followed by President Donald Trump’s signature.
The $2 trillion stimulus package for workers, businesses and hospitals was the culmination of weeklong marathon negotiations that lasted practically around the clock, finally coming to a close on Wednesday.
Several members—Republicans Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mitt Romney and Mike Lee of Utah, and John Thune of South Dakota—were forced to miss the vote because they’re self-quarantining, with Paul testing positive for the virus.
“The Senate has pivoted from one of the most contentious, partisan periods in the nation’s history to passing this rescue package 100-0 all in one quarter of this year,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters, referencing impeachment. “We’re gonna win this battle in the very near future.”
The nearly 900-page measure includes up to $1,200 individual checks to Americans topping out at a cost of $250 billion; expanded unemployment benefits worth $250 billion for up to four months; $350 billion for small business loans, some of which will be forgiven; a $500 billion loan program for corporations; a $150 billion “Marshall Plan” for hospitals and medical supplies; and $350 billion in emergency funds for state and local governments and communities.
“Our health care system is not prepared to care for the sick. Our workers are without work. Our businesses cannot do business. Our factories lie idle. The gears of the american economy have ground to a halt,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the floor. “This is a time when the American people need their government. This is what we were elected for. The oath we swear to the constitution means we must protect the general welfare of the people.”
Negotiations stalled and partisan tensions flared in recent days after Democrats twice blocked a key procedural vote to advance the legislation this week as lawmakers attempted to reach a final deal.
And five Republicans briefly held up the final vote Wednesday after demanding an amendment vote to ensure the unemployment benefits don’t exceed an employee’s former pay over fears they could earn more money without a job. The amendment, offered by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and lead by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), failed to muster the required 60 votes. It was defeated mostly along party lines 48-48.
“Nobody here is arguing about whether or not we should help workers,” Sasse said on the floor. “This is a debate about whether or not we’re going to let a poorly-drafted bill knock this nation still harder in the coming months by unintentionally increasing unemployment.”
In the end, Democrats declared victory over several provisions—more money for hospitals and unemployment insurance, as well as stricter oversight of the corporate bailout funds—while Republicans pushed back, saying they were always in agreement on certain issues like oversight and that Democrats caused unnecessary delay.
With House members out of town amid heightened concerns over traveling and several lawmakers already contracting the virus, the chamber is expected to approve the stimulus Friday at 9 a.m. in order to give members time to look over the mammoth piece of legislation. It’ll be attempted to be passed by voice vote, a method that would require fewer than a handful of people present and lend more political cover to those who may disagree with the bill since there is debate time and no names are recorded. A unanimous vote is out of the question as Republicans expect their own members would object.
However, anyone could also block a voice vote, at which point members would have to be recalled to Washington, D.C., for a roll call vote. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) have refused to rule out forcing a roll call vote.
“With a voice vote, it gives you the opportunity that your constituents and those who represent you could debate the bill, could voice their opinion and not say that everybody is agreeing to it yes or no,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said.
Trump said he’ll “immediately” sign the legislation into law once it lands on his desk.
The stimulus package is the third piece of legislation produced to alleviate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier bills gave more funding to research on treatment and vaccines; required certain companies to provide employees with paid sick and family leave; expanded Medicaid; and increased money for food aid, such as food stamps.
The package comes at a time when the number of confirmed cases continues to exponentially increase to roughly 60,000 as of Wednesday, straining hospitals and medical facilities across the country as the World Health Organizations warns the United States could become the pandemic’s new epicenter. Trump has become increasingly eager to end the social-distancing restrictions that have shuttered large swaths of the economy as soon as Easter to stem the recession, a move that contradicts the advice of health officials.
“I’m not going to be doing anything rash or hastily. The country wants to get back to work,” Trump told reporters Wednesday at the White House. “We’ll do sections of our country, there’s big sections of our country that are very little affected by what’s taken place.”
On Tuesday, the president suggested in a Fox News town hall that the “cure is worse than the problem,” elaborating his belief “more people are going to die” if much of the economy remains shuttered.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious diseases expert at the National Institute of Health, said the situation is fluid and will be based on infection rates in the coming days and weeks. “You got to be very flexible and a literally day-by-day and week-by-week basis,” he told reporters Tuesday, flanked by Trump. “You need to evaluate the feasibility of what you’re trying to do.”
Some Republicans have warned the president against reopening the economy too early, saying the best way to help the economy in the long run is to stem the virus’ spread.
“That needs to be dictated by the public health numbers,” Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Newsweek. “It’s a tough balance, but I think the best thing we can do for the economy, at this point is make this virus—the public health part of it—as short as possible.”
Representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican, warned in a tweet there “will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus.”