A bill aimed at easing the financial burden of the coronavirus passed easily in the House of Representatives Saturday morning — but its path in the Senate could be a little more challenging.
The bill, called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, offers a direct response to some of the economic fallout that workers have experienced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but lawmakers in the upper chamber are expressing reservations about some of its provisions.
Specifically, the 14 days of paid sick leave the legislation guarantees has spurred concerns from Republicans, who are worried the proposal could put too much pressure on small businesses. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called out this sticking point during an appearance on Fox News Sunday, saying, “We are hearing feedback that certain small businesses are concerned about the burden of this.”
This isn’t the first time an objection like this has come up. Republicans in the past have long been skeptical of implementing paid sick leave programs because of this very concern — and it seems like the coronavirus relief bill simply offers the latest opportunity for them to make their point. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) laid out these critiques in a statement he released this weekend.
“I fear that rather than offering a workable solution, the House bill will exacerbate the problem by forcing small businesses to pay wages they cannot afford and ‘helping’ them go further into debt,” he said. Just last week, Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) told reporters he was wary of imposing a mandate on businesses. “I like the idea [of paid sick leave] as long as it’s the choice of the company,” he said.
As written, however, the bill would not mandate extra costs for businesses: In the House legislation, the federal government would cover the costs for small businesses that offer paid sick leave. Much of the Republican pushback, like that offered by Johnson, appears to discount this fact.
Further complicating the bill’s prospects in the Senate is the fact that a handful of Republicans — including Sen. Mitt Romney — are pushing for a more direct way to address immediate costs. Romney, specifically, has called for at least one cash payment to American adults.
The Senate will need to sort out some of these Republican concerns with the House legislation in order to advance it this week. Before it can do so, the House has to approve some “technical corrections” that Mnuchin referenced on Fox News this weekend. Although neither he nor House leadership has offered more clarity on what these corrections are, adding them to the text of the bill could further delay its passage — as Politico’s Jake Sherman has reported, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) has said he plans to read out all of the technical corrections before the bill is voted on.
Once the House clears these updates, the legislation heads to the upper chamber for consideration.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on the reauthorization of a set of intelligence surveillance measures first, though. A vote on surveillance tools established by the USA Freedom Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is slated to take place Monday evening, with a vote on the coronavirus bill expected later this week.
Paid sick leave could prove to be a major sticking point
Paid sick leave is a measure the GOP has opposed for some time — and the coronavirus bill seems to mark the latest opportunity for them to express this position.
In 2015, Congressional Republicans were similarly wary of a push by the Obama administration to pass legislation guaranteeing workers paid sick leave. Currently, there is no law on the books that ensures such protections for workers, and even the House bill would only cover a subset of workers for a temporary amount of time.
The provisions in the House bill apply exclusively to companies that have fewer than 500 employees, and those that have 50 employees or fewer are still able to apply for an exemption if the measure would have a disproportionate impact on their business. As a result, millions of workers are left out of the protections offered by the legislation, an outcome that resulted from House Republicans’ objections to the broader protections included in earlier drafts of the bill.
The crux of the disagreement about paid sick leave has been pretty consistent over the years: Republicans think these programs force small businesses to cover costs that will be detrimental to their operations. They’ve also generally chafed at any additional government intervention in the way that businesses operate such programs.
The House coronavirus bill, though, accounts for these expenses and includes a tax credit for businesses that offer workers paid sick days. Republicans, however, are continuing to voice objections despite the urgent nature of this legislation and the concessions that have already been made.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell laid out a relatively broad plan for next steps in a statement over the weekend. “I know senators on both sides are carefully reviewing the details and are eager to act swiftly to help American workers, families, and small businesses navigate this challenging time,” he said, asking for patience and saying the Senate would be weighing the legislation in the coming days.
Given that President Donald Trump has endorsed the legislation, it’s possible lawmakers will simply register their objections and wind up backing the bill in the end — particularly since both House and Senate lawmakers have signaled that they would like to move on to work on other measures to offer financial support to industries and workers that have been hit especially hard by this crisis.
The timing of the Senate vote is still up in the air
At this point, there still isn’t a clear timeline for a Senate vote on the House bill.
When the upper chamber returns Monday evening, it’s slated to vote on the FISA reauthorization first, a decision that’s prompted pushback, even on the GOP side of the aisle.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) on Sunday tweeted that a vote on the coronavirus bill should take precedence over FISA. “There is no reason for this to take days and days,” he wrote.
FISA needs to be carefully reviewed. That takes time. That can wait. The emergency response to #coronavirus should be the first order of business in the Senate tomorrow. There is no reason for this to take days & days https://t.co/GyLOz6bcpb— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) March 15, 2020
Senate Democrats have also made similar arguments. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) urged McConnell to consider passing both measures with unanimous consent over the weekend, a mechanism that enables lawmakers to approve a bill as long as no senators object. Doing so would have meant that lawmakers who’d traveled back to their home states for the weekend wouldn’t have had to return to the Capitol, reducing their potential exposure to the virus.
“Senators and staff are working to serve their states locally as best they can, and with unanimous consent for these measures there is no valid reason to force extra travel this week,” said Durbin. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also criticized McConnell’s decision to leave town for the weekend, instead of working through the coronavirus legislation.
As concerns have grown about the coronavirus outbreak in recent days, the pressure has only increased for Congress to approve legislation that would guarantee workers some financial safety net if they fall ill or aren’t otherwise able to work because of the virus. The House has worked through its deal with Mnuchin and now it’s up to the Senate to pass it.