House Democrats approve $3-trillion coronavirus relief bill
Democrats powered a massive $3-trillion coronavirus relief bill through the House on Friday, an election-year measure designed to brace a U.S. economy in free fall and a healthcare system struggling amid the pandemic still pummeling the country.
The 208-199 vote, over strong Republican opposition, advances what boils down to a campaign-season display of Democratic economic and healthcare priorities. It has no chance of becoming law as written, but is likely to lead to difficult negotiations with the White House and Senate Republicans. Any product would probably be the last major COVID-19 response bill before November’s presidential and congressional elections.
The measure would cost more than the prior four relief bills combined. It would deliver almost $1 trillion for state and local governments, another round of $1,200 direct payments to individuals, and help for the unemployed, renters and homeowners, college debt holders and the struggling Postal Service.
“Not to act now is not only irresponsible in a humanitarian way, it is irresponsible because it’s only going to cost more,” warned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “More in terms of lives, livelihood, cost to the budget, cost to our democracy.”
Republicans mocked the bill as a bloated Democratic wish list that was dead on arrival in the GOP-led Senate and, for good measure, faced a White House veto threat. Party leaders say they want to assess how $3 trillion approved earlier is working and see if some states’ partial business reopenings would spark an economic revival that would ease the need for more safety net programs.
Republicans are also sorting through internal divisions and awaiting stronger signals from President Trump about what he will support.
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“Phase Four is going to happen,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, using Washington insider-speak for the next relief measure. “But it’s going to happen in a much better way for the American people.”
Trump and top Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are insisting the next measure protect reopening businesses from liability lawsuits. The president is also demanding a cut to payroll taxes, but GOP leaders are not yet on board.
The daylong debate painted a Capitol scene that’s become common in the era of coronavirus, even as it remains disconcerting. The sparsely populated House floor was dotted with lawmakers and aides wearing protective masks and even gloves, though some Republicans lacked them.
Many members looked shaggier and sported beards they had not worn weeks ago. Roll call votes lasted over an hour each because lawmakers were voting in small groups to limit crowding.
To enhance the bill’s political impact, Democrats named their measure the “Heroes Act” for the payments it would provide front-line emergency workers. With more than 87,000 Americans dead, 1.4 million confirmed infections and 36 million filing unemployment claims in a frozen economy, Democrats saw GOP opposition as an easy campaign-season target.
“Are you kidding me?” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said of Republican assertions that it was time to stop spending more money. “Where do you guys live? Food lines at our food banks around the block? In the United States of America?”
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Republicans saw the bill as a Democratic political blunder. They said overly generous unemployment benefits discouraged people from returning to work, and they attacked language helping immigrants in the U.S. illegally get federal benefits. They also singled out provisions helping states set up voting by mail and easing the marijuana industry’s access to banks.
“It may help the cannabis industry, but it won’t help Main Street,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).
The bipartisan consensus that produced four previous coronavirus bills appears to be crumbling. Polls show GOP voters are satisfied with the federal response and aren’t agitating for more. Self-branded deficit hawks are citing the massive increase in the spiraling $25 trillion national debt.
Some congressional aides said the Democratic bill’s real price tag could breach $3.5 trillion. A partial estimate of tax provisions alone revealed eye-popping costs: $412 billion to renew $1,200 cash payments to individuals, more than $100 billion to pay health insurance premiums for the unemployed and $164 billion to make an “employee retention” tax credit for businesses more generous.
Republican leaders faced disunity between conservatives who think enough has been done and more moderate members who back rescuing the Postal Service from looming insolvency and delivering cash to revenue-starved state and local governments. The huge price tag and a lack of consultation with Republicans by Pelosi cemented GOP opposition.
“This bill is nothing more than the Democratic policy agenda masquerading as a response to the coronavirus crisis,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). He said the bill is “going nowhere, and is going nowhere fast.”
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Pelosi overcame party divisions of her own. Some moderate Democrats opposed the package for its price tag and politically fraught provisions such as assisting marijuana businesses. A few progressive Democrats were upset because it did not do more, such as guaranteeing workers’ salaries and bolstering their health insurance coverage.
Those for whom the vote was most politically risky were the 30, mostly freshmen, from House districts that backed Trump in 2016. One, Rep. Cynthia Axne (D-Iowa), labeled the measure “bloated” and said she’d vote no.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a progressive Democrat from Washington state, told reporters that she’d also oppose the bill. She said that if constituents were to ask her whether the bill would put money in their pockets or preserve their healthcare, “I can’t tell them yes.”
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