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Pelosi forecasts House OK of Senate's $2.2T virus aid plan

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., heads to a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Thu, 26 Mar 2020 11:22:17 -0500

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House will give final approval Friday to the massive $2.2 trillion economic rescue bill with robust backing from both parties, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, a vote that would cap Congress' tumultuous effort to rush the relief to a nation battered by the coronavirus.

Pelosi spoke Thursday morning, just hours after the Senate used an overnight vote to approve the measure 96-0. With House members dispersed around the country, Pelosi and Republican leaders were planning to bless the measure by a voice vote, probably with just a sprinkling of lawmakers present in the chamber.

“It will pass with strong bipartisan support,” said Pelosi, D-Calif. President Donald Trump has implored lawmakers to finish with the package so he can sign it into law.

The package comes to the House as fresh evidence emerges that the economy is in a recession. The government reported 3.3 million new weekly unemployment claims, four times the previous record. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said in a TV interview the economy “may well be in a recession.”

Pelosi praised the bill's expansion of unemployment benefits and provisions that encourage companies hit by the pandemic to keep paying their workers, even those who are furloughed.

“We will have a victory tomorrow for America's workers,” she said. “If somebody has a different point of view, they can put it in the record, but we’re not worried about that.”

The package would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. It would steer substantial aid to larger industries, too.

The unanimous Senate vote late Wednesday came despite misgivings on both sides about whether it goes too far or not far enough and capped days of difficult negotiations as Washington confronted a national challenge unlike any it has faced.

The 880-page measure is the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared somber and exhausted as he announced the vote — and he released senators from Washington until April 20, though he promised to recall them if needed.

“Pray for one another, for all of our families and for our country," said McConnell, R-Ky.

“The legislation now before us now is historic because it is meant to match a historic crisis," said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “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."

The package is intended as relief for a sinking economy and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that's killed more than 21,000 people worldwide. The U.S. death toll has surpassed 1,000 people.

“This is a unique situation," Powell told NBC's “Today” show. “This is not a typical downturn.”

The Fed chief went on: "What's happening here is people are being asked to close their businesses, to stay home from work and to not engage in certain kinds of economic activity and so they're pulling back. And at a certain point, we will get the spread of the virus under control and at that time confidence will return, businesses will open again, people will come back to work.”

Underscoring the effort's sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion-plus annual federal budget. The $2.2 trillion estimate is the White House's best guess.

The drive by leaders to speed the bill through the Senate on Wednesday slowed as four conservative Republican senators from states whose economies are dominated by low-wage jobs demanded changes. They said the legislation as written was so generous that workers like store clerks might opt to stay on unemployment rather than return to their jobs. They settled for a failed vote to modify the provision.

Wednesday's delays followed Democratic stalling tactics earlier in the week as Schumer held out for additional money for states and hospitals and other provisions.

The sprawling measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers and food aid.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said earlier he expected the measure to pass by a voice vote without lawmakers having to return to Washington. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said Thursday his members were on board with that.

“We'll have a debate, and then we'll have a voice vote to bring it up and move it to the president's desk,” McCarthy told Fox News. He said that while Democrats inserted things in the bill that didn't deal with coronavirus, ”we will still get this package done for hospitals, workers, small businesses."

“Every day matters, so we want to get this done quickly,” McCarthy said.

The package has a heavily negotiated $500 billion program for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

The bill would provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child.

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks to an estimated $130 billion. Another $45 billion would fund additional relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for local response efforts and community services.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salaries of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600-per-week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time.

Businesses controlled by members of Congress and top administration officials, including Trump and his immediate family members, would be ineligible for the bill's business assistance.

State and local authorities would receive up to $150 billion in grants to fight the virus, care for their residents and provide basic services.

Republicans won inclusion of an employee retention tax credit that's estimated to provide $50 billion to companies that retain employees on payroll and cover 50% of workers' paycheck up to $10,000. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax.

Pelosi was a force behind $400 million in grants to states to expand voting by mail and other steps that Democrats billed as making voting safer but Republican critics called political opportunism. The package also contains $15.5 billion more for a surge in demand for food stamps as part of a massive $330 billion title for agency operations.

Most people who contract the new coronavirus have mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

In the United States, more than 69,000 people have been sickened by the virus.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Mary Clare Jalonick, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

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