WASHINGTON — The Senate late Wednesday passed a record $2 trillion coronavirus-related stimulus package with money for American workers and businesses, overcoming a daylong effort by U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska to cap the bill’s boost in jobless benefits.
The bill passed unanimously, 96-0. Sasse voted against last week’s coronavirus relief package.
The 883-page measure is the largest economic relief bill in American history, roughly half the size of the annual $4 trillion federal budget. It earmarks aid for workers, businesses and the nation’s health care system, all of which are coping with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The Senate bill, which President Donald Trump has said he would sign if the House passes it Friday, intends to blunt the effects of a sputtering economy and to help a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that has killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide. U.S. deaths from the disease crested 1,000 on Wednesday.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said that the bill could help keep the American economy afloat for about three months but that he hopes it won’t have to do so.
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.
It would expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers stay home.
And it would send hospitals fighting the disease an estimated $130 billion and set aside another $45 billion for state and local government and community services.
Trump had urged quick passage but said, “I don’t think it’s going to end up being such a rough patch.” Once the country is past the pandemic, he said, the economy will soar “like a rocket ship.”
Five days of arduous talks produced the bill, creating tensions among top congressional leaders, who each took care to tend to party politics as they maneuvered and battled over crafting the legislation. But failure is not an option, nor is starting over, which permitted both sides to include their priorities.
“That Washington drama does not matter any more,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “The Senate is going to stand together, act together, and pass this historic relief package today.”
The vote on the package, which had been expected by midafternoon Wednesday, was delayed until 10:30 p.m. by Sasse and a handful of fellow Republican senators, Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida.
They had objected to the way the bill handled a proposed increase in unemployment benefits. At issue, Sasse and the others said, was the addition of $600 a week in federal money on top of state unemployment benefits, regardless of the person’s previous earnings.
Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment insurance benefits, plus the $600 per week, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time.
Sasse’s concern, he told The World-Herald, was that some people could make more money on unemployment than by working at a grocery store, gas station or pharmacy, even in-home health care. So, in theory, a worker, with help from a cooperative employer, might choose unemployment over a job.
That, the GOP foursome argued, risked leaving critical sectors of the economy with too few workers and might force employers to pay more to fill critical jobs during a crisis that’s already hurting many businesses’ bottom lines.
Sasse, in a floor speech, said the bill creates a “perverse incentive” for workers to “stay on the sidelines” and wait to seek work.
He had told The World-Herald: “We absolutely need to help folks who need it, but we absolutely cannot gut our supply chains by increasing unemployment.”
The Nebraska Republican’s stance drew criticism from Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, who said businesses stand to benefit more from the stimulus package than workers.
“I think it’s disgusting that Sen. Sasse thinks that workers would rather sit at home than have the dignity of their job,” Kleeb said Wednesday.
Sasse’s amendment to cap unemployment benefits at 100% of whatever a person made when last working received 48 votes, short of the 60 needed.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., arguing against the amendment, said the Trump administration’s Department of Labor had said too many states would be unable to make a determination of what people were paid and adjust their unemployment benefits.
“The way you want to calculate it cannot be done,” Durbin said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday evening, said the country could not wait for a perfect bill.
“There is nothing in this bill that will damage us more than our inability to act,” Rubio said.
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.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sent out a roster of negotiating wins for transit systems, hospitals and cash-hungry state governments that were cemented after Democrats blocked the measure in votes held Sunday and Monday.
Republicans won inclusion of an “employee retention” tax credit that’s estimated to provide $50 billion to companies that keep employees on payroll and cover 50% of workers’ paychecks up to $10,000. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax.
One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with the airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.
A companion appropriations package ballooned, too, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to $330 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters — including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.
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The biggest objections other than Sasse’s came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other. Cuomo said, “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”
Democrats assured him and others that a fourth coronavirus bill will follow this spring and signaled that delaying the pending measure would be foolish. Wednesday’s bill is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swung behind the bipartisan agreement, saying it “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people.”
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.
World-Herald staff writer Aaron Sanderford contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press.