House Democrats released their coronavirus economic relief bill late Wednesday night, as layoffs related to the outbreak were reported. But the timing of when they’ll vote on it is still up in the air nearly 24 hours later.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been negotiating the text of the bill with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin throughout the day on Thursday. The two had their fifth phone call shortly before 4 pm, her spokesperson said. (This piece will be updated as negotiations on the bill continue.)
The new multibillion-dollar bill contains a number of emergency economic measures designed to assist working people and families dealing with the virus — including free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave, and expanded unemployment benefits for those laid off related to the virus. Provisions in the bill expanding food assistance alone would cost $1 billion; a Congressional Budget Office score is expected.
“It will be in the billions, and I won’t go beyond that, but it will be costly,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told reporters of the bill. “But I will tell you this: It will be much more costly if we don’t provide relief.” (For context, the federal government’s discretionary spending was well over $1 trillion last year.)
The impasse between Republicans and Democrats on the bill centers on two things; Republicans don’t like a provision in the relief bill that would establish a permanent paid sick leave program, and Democrats are pushing back on Republicans wanting to add language referencing the Hyde amendment, which bans federal funds being used to pay for abortions.
Though the House was initially planning to vote on the bill Thursday, it’s unclear whether a vote will happen Thursday night or get pushed to Friday. The Senate has canceled its planned recess to stay in Washington and work on the legislation.
“I think it’s possible tonight. If we can’t get it done tonight, we’ll get it done tomorrow,” Hoyer told reporters after leaving Pelosi’s office Thursday afternoon. “I think everybody feels a sense of urgency.”
One thing that didn’t make it was President Donald Trump’s big ask: a payroll tax cut, which Hoyer called a “nonstarter” Wednesday. There was near-universal Democratic opposition to the payroll tax cut, which would likely benefit only companies and a subset of workers. Even members of Trump’s party expressed skepticism about the president’s idea, saying they’re not sure it would be effective. House Democrats are also putting on the pressure on paid sick leave.
Senate Democrats released their own plan for paid sick leave Wednesday (something that’s in the House bill as well). Both proposals stand at odds with the White House plan to target economic relief like low interest rates toward specific industries, including travel and hotel industries as well as oil and gas companies, the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reported.
Getting the bill over the finish line will mean a sorting of priorities. Democrats want to make sure cost doesn’t impede workers from getting the health care they need and that taking time off from work to quarantine isn’t a problem. Republicans seem more preoccupied with stabilizing the economy, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell panned the bill as “an ideological wish list that was not closely tailored to the circumstances,” according to New York Times reporter Carl Hulse.
The growing coronavirus threat could be a good motivator for bipartisan cooperation, especially as the stock market had another precipitous drop Thursday. Unlike a lot of partisan fights, this one could be more about when — not if — this bill will be worked out.
Congress last week passed an $8.3 billion supplemental bill designed to boost the US public health response to the coronavirus. While this one is focused on shoring up the economy, it has a serious public health component as well.
“We’ll have to worry about the costs at some point in time,” Hoyer said Wednesday. “This is an emergency; we need to get this done.”
The Democrats’ stimulus bill, explained
Even though this is an economy-focused bill, Democrats have been clear it’s also about public health. They especially want to ensure there are no cost barriers to getting tested if families are uninsured or underinsured, and that workers who might have contracted the coronavirus don’t feel the need to keep working, thereby spreading the disease to others.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer blasted Trump for not mentioning coronavirus testing in his Wednesday night address announcing a partial travel ban for European nationals coming to the US, which contained multiple errors.
“Alarmingly, the president did not say how the administration will address the lack of coronavirus testing kits throughout the United States,” Pelosi and Schumer said in their joint statement. “We urge Republicans in the House and Senate to help immediately pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.”
Here’s what’s in Democrats’ proposal.
- Emergency paid sick days: The bill would require all employers to accrue seven days of paid sick leave, and provide an additional 14 days to be available immediately during the coronavirus (many employers are asking employees to work from home for that amount of time). It ensures sick leave to those impacted by quarantine orders, or those who must stay home to care for their children. The bill reimburses small businesses (those with 50 or fewer employees) for the cost of the 14 additional days of leave.
- Emergency paid leave: The bill would create a new federal emergency paid leave program for those unable to work because they either have Covid-19, are quarantined, are caring for someone with the disease, or are caring for a child due to coronavirus-related school closings. Eligible workers would receive benefits for a month (the program goes up to three months), and the benefit amount would be two-thirds of the individual’s average monthly earnings. Those receiving pay or unemployment compensation directly through their employers aren’t eligible. There is some precedent for this: Congress expanded unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks for Americans left unemployed by the 2008 financial crisis.
- Expanding food security: The bill would direct $1 billion to expanding access to programs like WIC and the emergency food assistance program throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Progressive economists have long believed that expanding existing safety net programs is a highly effective way of stimulating the economy because the low-income people who benefit from them are highly likely to immediately spend any extra money they get — helping stabilize economy-wide demand. The 2009 stimulus bill featured many provisions along these lines. Conservatives, who are critical of those programs in general, tend to be highly skeptical of putting more money into them.
- Free coronavirus testing: Democratic leaders propose making coronavirus testing free to increase access by requiring private health insurers (plus government programs like Medicare and Medicaid) to cover the cost of testing, including emergency room visits and doctor fees in the process. Free testing is being offered in a number of states, but there’s no federal regulation mandating it so far.
- Increasing the capacity of the US medical system and ensuring affordable treatment: The bill also calls on insurance providers to reimburse coronavirus patients for any non-covered costs related to Covid-19. Again, they’re hoping this gets more people treated and makes it so people don’t put off going to the doctor because they are worried about costs.
What happens next
House members were supposed to vote on the bill Thursday before flying out for a previously scheduled district work period; as of right now, the recess is still on, though potentially delayed until Friday morning or afternoon. Once the House passes the bill, the Senate could vote on it soon after.
McConnell announced the Senate would cancel its recess next week, but it needs to act fast for another reason — Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Rick Scott (R-FL) — are in self-quarantine after potentially being exposed to the coronavirus.
With reports of new coronavirus-related layoffs and a rising number of cases, there’s increased incentive for Senate Republicans to vote for the bill. But whether they support it will likely come down to whether President Trump does, McConnell said Monday.
“The secretary of the Treasury is going to have control for the administration, and I expect that will speak for us as well,” McConnell said. “We’re hoping he and the speaker pull this together so that we’re not playing partisan games at a time which seems to me to cry out for bipartisan, bicameral agreement.”
Though early reports suggested Trump would go along with the House bill, Republicans registered their opposition to it Thursday morning. However, negotiations on the bill between Pelosi and Mnuchin are ongoing, and Pelosi sounded optimistic that a deal would happen at her press conference Thursday morning.
There’s plenty of incentive to act as fast as possible. Congress realizes they have a fast-growing national crisis on their hands, and panicked stock markets are looking for some assurance from the government.