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The Senate impasse over the massive $1.8 trillion coronavirus stimulus, explained

Republicans need Democratic votes more than ever to pass the coronavirus stimulus.

Reporters question Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as he heads into a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on March 23, 2020.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call Getty Images

Over the weekend, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have been frantically negotiating with the White House to approve a $1.8 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.

There are major policy disagreements standing in the way. Democrats are objecting to a $500 billion chunk that’s allocated for big businesses, which they say doesn’t have enough oversight. Democrats also want to secure more money for hospitals and health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, as well as state and local governments.

During a Sunday night procedural vote in the Senate, the bill put forth by Senate Republicans failed to get the 60 votes needed to move forward; 47 senators voted for the bill while 47 voted no. Democrats were united in their opposition; even more conservative members of the Democratic caucus like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia issued statements after decrying Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s bill for prioritizing big business over money for hospitals and workers.

On Monday afternoon, that same procedural vote failed again 49-46, as Democrats maintained their opposition to the proposed package.

Republicans were always going to have to negotiate with Democrats to get to 60 votes. But to complicate matters, the GOP needs Democratic support even more given how many Republican senators aren’t able to participate in votes right now. Five Republican senators are self-quarantining due to concerns that they may have been exposed to coronavirus, including some who are doing so after Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) announced he tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday night.

Paul’s behavior has prompted an outcry from a number of his colleaguesquestioning why he continued to appear in the Senate for Republican conference lunches and other votes. Based on how infectious the disease is, it could only be a matter of time before more senators are impacted.

The main hang-up on the bill is Democrats’ objection to $500 billion that would go to big companies and industries hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. As the bill is currently written, much of the use of that money would be under the discretion of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and Democrats want rules and regulations around the funds to direct them to the workers — not CEOs.

After the procedural vote failed on Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer explained what Democrats were opposed to. In his words: “A giant, giant corporate bailout fund with no accountability — you wouldn’t even know what loans were made until six months later.” Two other big points that Democrats want to see movement on are increased funding for hospitals and necessary equipment like ventilators and masks, and increased federal funding for state and local governments trying to grapple with the growing crisis.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to reporters on March 20, 2020.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

McConnell’s GOP votes are shrinking. The situation increases Democrats’ leverage and makes bipartisan agreement even more paramount.

The normally reserved McConnell looked visibly angry Sunday night as he spoke on the Senate floor, laying blame at the feet of Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“We had a good bipartisan bill developed on a bipartisan basis with members in the Senate over the last 48 hours, until the Democratic leader and the speaker of the House decided to blow it all up and play Russian roulette with the markets,” McConnell said. “The result of what the Democratic leader just did was to prevent us from voting right after the markets open in the morning, and allow the markets to be rattled until noon.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are furious at McConnell’s characterization of the legislation as “bipartisan,” since they weren’t included in much of its initial development.

Negotiations between Schumer, McConnell, and the White House continue. As both the number of coronavirus cases and the number of layoffs rise in the US each day, the need to reach a compromise is pressing.

What we know about the stimulus package

There is still no deal on the massive coronavirus stimulus package, and senators are continuing negotiations with the White House, after Schumer and Mnuchin met late into the night on Sunday. There’s another tentative vote to advance the legislation scheduled for early afternoon, though it remains uncertain if lawmakers will be able to eke out an agreement by that point.

“We will come in at noon and hopefully we will have an agreement by then,” Schumer said in a floor speech on Sunday.

A major reason for the impasse is pretty extensive disagreement over who exactly the stimulus would benefit.

In the form that was proposed by Senate Republicans as of Sunday afternoon, the legislation included some relief for workers, but focused heavily on providing assistance to major corporations in affected industries — and offered little transparency on how these funds could be doled out. Some of the key planks of the legislation, which is now being negotiated, are as follows:

  • Direct payments to adults below a certain income threshold: The legislation would include a one-time $1,200 check that would be sent to most adults making $75,000 or less annually, according to past tax returns. A $500 payment would also be sent to cover every child in qualifying households.
  • Loans to small businesses: There would be $350 billion in the bill aimed at providing loans for small businesses, according to the Washington Post, though Democrats and Republicans disagree on which organizations are included. As a Democratic aide pointed out, the existing language would leave out organizations that receive Medicaid funding.
  • Loans to major corporations: A major sticking point in the bill is the $500 billion in loans and support that the legislation would allocate to benefit corporations. Not only is it a massive figure, it’s also funding that the administration could funnel to these companies without much oversight. Given the way the legislation was initially written, the administration would be able to delay disclosures about the recipients of the loans, according to a Democratic aide. Additionally, the Treasury secretary would have been able to waive restrictions on stock buybacks.

Despite Republicans billing this process as “bipartisan,” Democrats made clear this weekend that they were not satisfied with how they’ve been cut out of its development. Democrats are particularly interested in seeing a boost in funding to help states stem losses they’ve encountered and cover costs like the increased need for food assistance and unemployment insurance.

Even Manchin, one of the most conservative Senate Democrats, who sometimes sides with Republicans, could not be persuaded to vote yes on the package. Manchin issued a statement shortly after hitting Senate Republicans for not providing enough funding for hospitals and front-line health care workers.

“It fails our first responders, nurses, private physicians and all healthcare professionals. ... It fails our workers. It fails our small businesses,” Manchin said in the statement. “Instead, it is focused on providing billions of dollars to Wall Street and misses the mark on helping the West Virginians that have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.”

The Senate voting math, briefly explained

This bill doesn’t just need Senate approval; it’ll have to get through the Democratic-controlled House, too. And on both fronts, it’s facing serious pushback.

In the Senate, the legislation needs at least 60 votes to even advance procedurally — meaning at least seven Democrats would have to vote in favor of it, if all 53 Republicans were present and united. That math is further complicated by the fact that five Republicans are currently self-quarantining because they’ve been directly exposed to individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19. And at least one Republican senator — Rand Paul — is the epicenter of a new wave of exposure fears.

Sen. Rand Paul at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 18, 2020.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

After Paul’s office announced his coronavirus diagnosis, Utah’s two senators — Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, both Republicans — announced that due to their recent proximity to Paul, they would self-quarantine and be unable to vote. Romney, who sits next to Paul in the Senate, will be tested for coronavirus. Lee’s office said while he is showing no symptoms and has therefore been advised he doesn’t need a test, he will still self-quarantine for two weeks. Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Rick Scott (R-FL) are also in self-imposed quarantine after coming into contact with other individuals who tested positive for coronavirus. (Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced her husband tested positive, but she has not seen him in two weeks so she is not being tested.)

Given the number of Republicans who are self-quarantining, the GOP majority for a physical vote has now dwindled down to 48-47, making the party even more reliant on Democratic support.

Even with the complex Senate voting math McConnell is up against, there’s yet another test once the bill passes the Senate: the House of Representatives.

On Sunday, Speaker Pelosi announced the House is finalizing its own coronavirus stimulus package, separate from the Senate bill — titled the “Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act.” Pelosi has not been a direct part of Senate negotiations thus far but is in close contact with Schumer. And the final package in the Senate will need her approval before it is passed and sent to the president’s desk.

Pelosi has a litany of disagreements with the current Republican bill. In addition to the ones laid out by Senate Democrats, House lawmakers are concerned with the lack of additional SNAP funds and the lack of Occupational Safety and Health Administration language to protect workers.

“There is at this time a big difference between the Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act and what the Senate Republicans are proposing,” Pelosi said in a Dear Colleague letter Sunday night.

Monday will be critical to see if the gap between Democratic and Republican demands can close.


Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the proposed $1,200 direct payments would apply to all adults under a specific income threshold. There are still a segment of adults who would not be covered by these payments.