WASHINGTON — Facing one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history, House leaders expressed optimism Thursday, March 26, about swift passage of the emergency $2.2 trillion relief bill aimed at mitigating the financial havoc caused by the coronavirus pandemic but faced a possible procedural hurdle that could delay sending the measure to President Trump.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., vowed to bring the massive legislation to the House floor on Friday and said she felt certain "we will have a strong bipartisan vote." To hasten passage, Pelosi is seeking to hold a voice vote, which would not require the House's 429 sitting members to reconvene in Washington - a move House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he endorsed, given that multiple lawmakers have contracted or been exposed to the coronavirus.
But at least one lawmaker is considering upending those plans. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said Thursday that he opposed the bill, approved Wednesday by the Senate, and is concerned that voting without a quorum present -- the majority of the House chamber --would violate the Constitution. Massie said he has yet to decide whether to press the issue, which could delay a House vote until late Saturday or Sunday.
Massie noted that 96 senators, who are on average older than House members and considered at higher risk to the virus, voted Wednesday night. "If 96% of them can make it, then can't 51% of the people who, on average, aren't in the dangerous cohort, more vulnerable cohort - how come they can't make it?" he asked.
The Senate acted with unusual speed and cooperation to produce the largest economic rescue package in U.S. history, just hours before the release of a Labor Department report showing a record 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week.
The sprawling legislation, which passed 96 to zero, would send checks to more than 150 million American households, set up enormous loan programs for businesses large and small, pump billions of dollars into unemployment insurance programs, greatly boost spending on hospitals and much more.
The Senate's most liberal and conservative members joined to support the mammoth spending bill, illustrating how concerned policymakers have become about the health-care strains and financial pain the country faces.
The legislation's goal is to flood the economy with money at a time of financial near-chaos, with entire states on lockdown, many businesses closed, and the numbers of infections and deaths from the coronavirus quickly on the rise.
"I feel certain that we will have a strong bipartisan vote," Pelosi said at a news conference Thursday morning.
She did not address the specific issue raised by Massie but said she is prepared to deal with any member who objects to moving forward with a voice vote -- as he and some others have suggested they might.
At a subsequent news conference, McCarthy said he thinks a voice vote on the bill will be sufficient and that members should not slow down the process by insisting on taking a roll-call vote. "I do not think there's a need for anything else," he said, noting there will be time for debate on the House floor.
Leaders of both parties said several precautions would be taken during Friday's debate, including wiping microphones after each speaker and making sure House members do not congregate closely. Members are also being encouraged to submit arguments via video so that they do not have to appear in the chamber.
Pelosi also made clear Thursday she believes additional legislation will be needed to respond to a variety of needs, including more help for New York and other states hit hard by the outbreak.
"Our nation obviously is going through a kind of crisis that is totally unprecedented in living memory," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said ahead of the Senate vote, after which the chamber intends to recess until April 20 unless urgent legislative action is needed before then.
"Let's stay connected and continue to collaborate on the best ways to keep helping our states and our country through this pandemic," McConnell said. "Let's continue to pray for one another, for all of our families and for our country."
In a fresh reminder of the dangers reaching into the Capitol itself, a spokesman for Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the No. 2 Senate Republican, announced just minutes before the vote that Thune was returning to South Dakota to self-quarantine because he was feeling unwell. Thune was one of four senators absent for Wednesday night's vote, and the other three absences were also due to the coronavirus -- Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has tested positive, and GOP Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney of Utah, who self-quarantined because they had spent time with Paul.
The vote came on the eve of the release of new figures from the Labor Department on the number of workers who applied for unemployment benefits during the week ending March 21. On Thursday morning, the Labor Department reported that 3.3 million Americans sought jobless benefits that week, shattering a prior record.
The Senate bill would attempt to help address the immediate economic pain by expanding unemployment benefits and disbursing $1,200 checks to Americans who earn less than $75,000. The payment would be slowly phased out for income above that, though people who earn more than $99,000 would not qualify.
"The gears of the American economy have ground to a halt," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "Our country has faced immense challenges before, but rarely so many at the same time."
The bill would extend $1,200 to most American adults and $500 for most children, create a $500 billion lending program for businesses, cities and states, and establish a $367 billion employee retention fund for small businesses. It would direct $130 billion to hospitals and provide four months of expanded unemployment insurance, among other things.
Lawmakers and the White House were bombarded with lobbyists and special-interest groups seeking assistance during the negotiations, and the price tag rose from $850 billion to $2.2 trillion in just a matter of days.
With confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States climbing swiftly to over 69,000 Thursday with more than 1,000 deaths, lawmakers acknowledged that no amount of economic relief from Congress could stop the pain for the American public. In addition to layoffs, many workers are dealing with salary reductions or furloughs. Despite Trump's push to restart much of the economy by April 12, there are growing signs that the drag on business could last well into the second half of the year.
Wednesday night's vote capped drama-filled days of up-and-down negotiations over legislation originally introduced by McConnell a week ago, but which Democrats viewed as unacceptably tilted toward corporations. They negotiated major changes, including an approximately $250 billion increase in spending on unemployment benefits that would expand eligibility and allow laid-off workers to receive an additional $600 a week for four months, on top of the benefits their state unemployment agencies pay.
Schumer touted the measure as "unemployment insurance on steroids," but in one of the final hang-ups Wednesday, a group of four conservative senators raised concerns that the program would provide incentive for people to leave the workforce since in some cases they might end up making more on unemployment than at their job.
Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke with the objecting senators - Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida - with Mnuchin explaining it was the most efficient way to structure the program since the alternative would require working with a patchwork of different state unemployment systems.
An amendment the senators offered to try to scale back the new program was defeated Wednesday.
Late resistance also came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who voiced complaints Wednesday that the legislation did not do enough to help his state, the hardest hit in the country by the virus, where doctors and hospitals are pleading for relief.
One last holdup, according to two congressional aides, surrounded a final condition for the more than $500 billion in corporate rescue funding: Schumer insisted on language requiring the terms of those loans to be disclosed to the public within seven days. The change was made, and the final bill circulated to Senate offices shortly after 10 p.m.
The legislation ensures that taxpayer-backed loans cannot go to firms controlled by Trump, other White House officials or members of Congress. That would suggest Trump-owned properties, including hotels that have been hurt by the downturn, cannot seek taxpayer assistance.
The airline industry, which has suffered huge losses in the past two months because of canceled flights and travel restrictions, would be a top recipient in the bill. Passenger airlines would qualify for $25 billion in loans and certain other guarantees and could have access to $25 billion in things like grants, which might not have to be repaid.
Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said he would have preferred long-term low-interest loans to airlines instead of grants, "But we had this argument, we had this discussion, and it turned out the way it did."
Cargo airlines and suppliers would qualify for a different batch of money.
Another provision of the bill would authorize $17 billion in assistance for companies deemed crucial for national security, language that was written in part to ensure assistance for Boeing, three people with knowledge of the internal deliberations said.
There is also an employee retention tax credit for many firms hurt by the coronavirus fallout and provisions to allow businesses to defer payment of payroll taxes for two years.
Even with all the new funding in the bill, the unemployment system is not designed to handle the surge of new applicants for jobless claims, and it is unclear how smoothly any of the changes might work. For example, the bill would dramatically expand the Small Business Administration's ability to guarantee loans, but millions of companies could seek these guarantees all at once, putting enormous pressure on a system that has never been tested in such a manner.
After falling 10,000 points in two months, the Dow Jones industrial average regained more than 2,500 points Tuesday and Wednesday amid optimism about the recovery package. The precise impact of the legislation could take months to understand. Many businesses have been hammered, perhaps beyond repair, by the economic impact of the virus.
Trump has signaled he wants some parts of the economy to reopen quickly, but many of the country's biggest economic engines - such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco - are seeing problems escalate.
The Washington Post's Jeff Stein, Heather Long, Seung Min Kim and John Wagner contributed to this report.
This article was written by Erica Werner, Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane, and John Wagner, reporters for The Washington Post.
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