Senate Democrats blocked a massive coronavirus stimulus bill from moving forward Sunday, March 22, as partisan disputes raged over the legislation that's aimed at arresting the economy's precipitous decline.
Lawmakers had hoped to pass a massive $1.8 trillion bill by Monday, but on Sunday night they were scrambling to revive talks, with the stock market poised for another sharp drop and households and businesses fretting about an uncertain future.
Negotiations continued even as the initial procedural vote fell short, with 47 senators voting in favor and 47 opposed. The tally was well short of the 60 votes that were needed to move forward. The number of "aye" votes was especially low because five Republicans are quarantined over coronavirus fears.
Although senators of both major parties and Trump administration officials vowed to continue negotiating - around the clock if necessary - the vote was the latest negative signal about Congress' ability to come together around the legislation, which aims to inject close to $1.8 trillion into businesses and households. Policymakers are scrambling to address a spike in layoffs and businesses gasping for assistance as millions of Americans stay home to avoid contagion.
Ever since Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced the legislation Thursday night, senators have missed one self-imposed deadline after another to reach a deal. The vote Sunday evening was delayed three hours so talks could continue after it became clear it would fail, but no resolution was reached and it failed anyway.
"Right now, they're not there," President Trump said from the White House with the vote underway. "But I think that the Democrats want to get there. And I can tell you for a fact, the Republicans want to get there. And I don't think anybody actually has a choice."
Indeed, the sheer magnitude of the potential calamity kept lawmakers at the bargaining table as negotiators on both sides said they must deliver to slow the financial landslide that is disrupting millions of businesses and households by the day.
At the same time, McConnell said it was time for Democrats to "take 'yes' for an answer" and accept a bill that he said incorporated many of their ideas. Democrats, though, said McConnell's bill was tilted too far in favor of corporations and did not include much oversight for $500 billion in loans and guarantees that could go to firms selected by the Treasury Department.
Senate Democrats and Republicans spent Friday and Saturday negotiating over the legislation with both sides saying they'd made progress, until McConnell announced late Saturday that he was moving forward on drafting a bill even though there was not yet a final deal. Each side quickly blamed the other for the breakdown.
After the vote, McConnell angrily lectured Democrats about the outcome. Republicans had hoped to move forward to final passage of the legislation on Monday, a goal that now looks improbable.
"The notion that we have time to play games here with the American economy and the American people is utterly absurd," McConnell said. "The American people expect us to act tomorrow and I want everybody to fully understand if we are't able to act tomorrow it will be because of our colleagues on the other side continuing to dicker when the country expects us to come together.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., came to the floor a short time later to declare that Republicans were the ones behaving unreasonably by trying to advance what he called a partisan bill.
Democrats said that despite some concessions on the part of Republicans, the GOP bill still had too many flaws and did not do enough to shore up the health care system and help average Americans.
"Now, let me be clear: the majority leader was well aware of how this vote would go before it happened, but he chose to move forward with it anyway - even though negotiations are continuing, so who's playing games?" Schumer asked, before adding a hopeful note: "Can we overcome the remaining disagreements in the next 24 hours? Yes. We can and we should. The nation demands it."
"We are at the point where both sides have come a long way towards each other," McConnell said Sunday on the Senate floor. "And each side has to decide whether to continue elbowing and arguing over the last several inches, and risk the whole thing . . . or whether to shake hands and get it done."
A major sticking point is a $500 billion pool of money for loans and loan guarantees that Republicans want to create, which some Democrats are labeling a "slush fund" because the Treasury Department would have broad discretion over who receives the money. There is little precedent for a program with a similar size and scope.
"They're throwing caution to the wind for average workers and people on Main Street and going balls to the wall for people on Wall Street," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said of Republicans.
Trump seemed to acknowledge such concerns on the part of Democrats while insisting that he did not want to offer bailouts.
"I don't want to give a bailout to a company and then have somebody go out and use that money to buy back stock in the company and raise the price and then get a bonus," Trump said. "So I may be Republican, but I don't like that. I want them to use the money for the workers."
The implications for the standoff became more dire as concerns about the economy intensify. Several senators feared the on the markets if they do not reach an agreement by Monday morning. Underscoring the spreading dangers, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on Sunday became the first senator to announce that he had tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. He had worked out with fellow lawmakers in the Senate gym that morning.
Not long afterward, GOP Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, both of Utah, announced that they'd be going into self-quarantine because of being in contact with Paul.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., meanwhile, suggested that House Democrats might chart their own course and release their own bill, which could put the Democratic-led House and the Republican-led Senate on different tracks and delay final agreement on any deal. The White House had expressed hope that a bill could be signed into law by Monday.
"We will be introducing our own bill and hopefully it will be compatible" with what's happening on the Senate side, Pelosi said after a late morning meeting with McConnell, Schumer, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The stock market has lost 10,000 points in six weeks, and some analysts believe more than 3 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week. Much of the U.S. economy is frozen as Americans stay home and cut back on spending, fearful about the coronavirus outbreak. The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. has grown sharply in the past few days, a rise that does not appear to be slowing.
The economic conditions appear to be dramatically worse than first predicted. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard told Bloomberg News in an interview Sunday that the unemployment rate could hit 30% between April and June because of mass layoffs, which would be worse than what occurred during the Great Depression.
In addition to $500 giving billion in loans and loan guarantees to businesses, states, and cities, the Senate GOP legislation would appropriate $350 billion for small businesses that is meant to help prevent more layoffs. It would also send $1,200 checks to many Americans, bolster the unemployment insurance system, and disburse a broad range of emergency funds to help reinforce hospitals and other areas.
The Senate bill would be by far the largest financial rescue ever attempted by Congress, dwarfing legislation passed during the financial crisis of 2008.
Typically, when large pieces of legislation become too contentious, lawmakers will try to scale it back to focus on areas of agreement. That could prove complicated this time because of dire warnings about the size of the economy's dramatic contraction. The bill includes massive funding streams for households and businesses, and prioritizing one over the other could cause significant issues in the economy.
For example, the direct payments to households would appropriate $1,200 per qualifying adult and $500 per child at a cost of about $250 billion. The cash disbursements in the new agreement would phase out for people with incomes of $75,000 and above. The legislation also includes about $100 billion for hospitals and about $250 billion to beef up state unemployment insurance programs - both major priorities for Democrats.
But many other parts of the bill are meant to address problems flagged by companies, many of whom have said they will be forced to scale back much of their operations if they don't receive aid soon.
The biggest subset of this $500 billion fund would be $425 billion in loans and loan guarantees meant to rescue "eligible businesses, states or municipalities." This part of the bill has attracted particular attention from Democrats, some of whom have said it would give the Treasury Department broad sway to direct funds to specific companies that have appealed to the White House. President Donald Trump has already talked about how he wants to help the cruise industry and the hotel industry, but dozens of other industries have pleaded for assistance as well. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called the bucket of money a "slush fund to boost favored companies and corporate executives - while they continue to pull down huge paychecks and fire their workers."
This section also includes $50 billion for passenger airline companies, $8 billion for cargo air firms, and $17 billion for companies deemed critical to the U.S.'s national security. The legislation does not include many restrictions on the companies that receive these funds. For example, companies are required to maintain the same employment levels that they had as of March 13 "to the extent practicable," but it does not define what practicable means.
The bill does appear to prohibit stock buybacks at firms that receive the emergency loans and gives the Treasury Department the opportunity to take equity stakes in the firms so taxpayers could benefit if a firm regains its financial footing.
The $350 billion small business program appeared to have broad bipartisan support, but processing this program could be a major logistical challenge because of the potential number of firms that could seek to have government support.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who chairs the Senate Small Business Committee, said there is a "very strong general agreement" that small businesses will be able to obtain loans up to 250% of their one-month payroll. That money, as long as it is used for businesses expenses such as paying workers or providing their benefits, or to cover rent, will be entirely forgiven, Rubio said.
Also sought in the bill is about $100 billion in emergency supplemental appropriations for a variety of public health and other needs, and there are several tax and health policy changes.
Mnuchin said the sweeping economic package is designed to last for 10 to 12 weeks, and the administration would revisit whether it would seek additional assistance from Congress. He said on "Fox News Sunday" that he expected a vote on the package Monday morning, but the prospect of such a development appeared dim as talks dragged on Sunday.
Democrats have argued that without protections for workers, companies receiving bailout money could fire their employees and pocket the taxpayer assistance, which would undermine the purpose of the federal aid. Republicans have said, though, that the program needs to be up and running immediately to help the economy before it is too late.
The dynamic on Capitol Hill partly results from lingering resentments among Senate Republicans over the last coronavirus relief bill, a $100-billion-plus package enacted last week; it was negotiated between Pelosi and Mnuchin. Many Senate Republicans were unhappy with paid-sick-leave provisions in that bill but voted for it anyway.
The enormous package being negotiated is Congress' third coronavirus relief bill. The first one, enacted this month, appropriated $8.3 billion for the public health system, vaccine development and other needs.
- - -
This article was written by Erica Werner, Seung Min Kim, Rachael Bade and Jeff Stein, reporters for The Washington Post.
The Washington Post's Paul Kane contributed to this report.
As a public service, we've opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.